Britain said it was extending Hong Kong residents a broader path to citizenship in response to China’s sweeping new security law for the former UK territory.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement represents the most direct international response to Beijing’s legislation that has been roundly condemned by Western allies.
“We stand for rules and obligations,” Johnson told parliament just hours after China made its first arrest in Hong Kong under the new law.
“And we think that is the scientific basis for our international relations and the enactment and deposition of this national security law constitutes a clear and serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”
About 300,000 Hong Kong citizens have British National Overseas (BNO) passports and another 2.6 million are eligible to apply.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Britain’s offer also extended to dependents of those with BNO status, but refused to be drawn in about how many would apply.
Eligible individuals from Hong Kong currently visit the UK for six months without a visa. Under the new policy, they will have the right to live and work in the country for five years. After that, they will be allowed to apply for settled status and then again for citizenship.
Hong Kongers who were born after the end of British rule in 1997 are not eligible, meaning in effect, many of the city’s young student activists who are most at risk of arrest under the new law cannot take advantage of the British offer.
Hong Kong was under UK jurisdiction until Britain handed it to China in 1997 with a guarantee that Beijing would preserve the city’s judicial and legislative autonomy for 50 years.
But critics say the new law – passed by Beijing’s rubber-stamp legislature this week without its text being released to the public – tests the limits of the “one country, two systems” principle that formally entered international law in 1984.
Britain’s last Hong Kong governor, Chris Patten, called details of the legislation unveiled overnight “even worse than I expected”.
“It is Orwellian stuff,” Patten told the BBC. “It does go wider and further than anybody had feared.”
Hong Kong police arrested nine people under the law on Wednesday, the first day it came into effect. They included a man with a Hong Kong independence flag and a woman holding a sign displaying the British flag and calling for Hong Kong’s independence.
Others were detained for possessing items advocating independence.