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Many had expected post-Brexit Britain to dramatically tighten immigration when London rejected the EU’s principle of freedom of movement. However, in light of the National Security Law imposed by the Chinese Government in Hong Kong, the UK is now offering citizens of the former colony a fast track route to citizenship through the British Nationals (Overseas) visa. 

The sweeping National Security Law criminalised ‘secession’, ‘subversion’, ‘terrorism’ and ‘collusion with foreign forces’, which incur penalties of life imprisonment. Amnesty International pointed out that the Chinese Government routinely uses these charges to prosecute political enemies, activists, lawyers and journalists. The law has been abused by authorities to crack down on peaceful protests, allowing people in Hong Kong to be arrested for possessing flags, stickers and banners with political slogans. Subsequently, many prominent pro-democracy activists fled after the imposition of the law or sought immigration route. 

BN(O) is a special status created under British law in 1987 that specifically relates to Hong Kong. The new BN(O) scheme allows eligible applicants to live, work and study in the UK, and subsequently apply for settlement and British citizenship. The UK proposed that the BN(O) scheme is a reflection of a historic and moral commitment to the people of Hong Kong who have their rights and freedom restricted. 

The BN(O) visa is a mutually beneficial scheme for the people of Hong Kong and the UK. Under this scheme, the UK welcomes millions of cash-rich Hong Kong immigrants that will drive the British economy. According to a report published by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), it is estimated that the bespoke immigration route could bring in £40 billion to the country’s GDP. Likewise, the migrant’s dependents will also add to the British economy through schooling. A Home Office economic impact assessment suggested that the influx could bring a tax boost of up to £2.9 billion to the economy. The CEBR report added that the influx of highly skilled Hong Kong migrants and the long term boost to GDP that they bring could be a “ray of sunshine” to the post-Brexit and COVID-19 economy.

In response to these developments, the Chinese and Hong Kong governments quickly retaliated by declaring that they would no longer recognise the BN(O) passport as a valid document. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson and prominent ‘wolf warrior’ diplomat Zhao Lijian commented on the scheme, stating that: “The UK’s move grossly violates China’s sovereignty, interferes in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs, and runs counter to international law and basic norms governing international relations.” Additionally, Tam Yiu-chung, a Member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), declared that not only has the UK breached trust and justice, but they have violated the Sino-British agreement on Hong Kong. The view that Britain’s act has violated agreements has been shared by many sympathisers. 

In 2015, former Chancellor George Osborne promised a ‘golden decade’ for Sino-British relations while delivering a speech to the Shanghai Stock Exchange in China where he stated that he wanted “… Britain to be connected to every part of this vast nation.” With the introduction of the BN(O) scheme, London has unilaterally changed the consensus between the two countries. Post-Brexit Britain is now at risk of losing an opportunity to engage with China’s booming economy as the IMF estimated that China would be the only major economy to grow in 2020, while many Western countries struggled during the pandemic. As China grows to overtake EU countries to become Britain’s biggest single import market, post-Brexit Britain will only grow more reliant on Chinese imports

The world today is confronting a very different China. The emergence of the combative wolf warrior diplomacy under Xi Jingping’s rule indicates that Chinese diplomats are not afraid to be aggressive and controversial. “London is asking to be humiliated if it cannot tell the trend of the times and engages in political shows that provoke China”, the prominent Chinese state media outlet Global Times wrote. 

Prior clashes with China on issues such as the Huawei 5G network have also severely undermined Sino-British relations. Judging by China’s recent hawkish approaches to its former allies, Canada and Australia, not recognising BN(O) as a travel document may well only be the first step in their response. Consequently, the decision made by London could lead to a similar generational dispute with Beijing, as witnessed by Australia, whom China just ended key economic dialogue with. 

The bilateral ties of Sino-British relations have irreparably changed. While enjoying the capital flow brought by Hong Kong immigrants, post-Brexit Britain will face stern geopolitical challenges as the ‘golden decade’ gives way to a frostier affair. 

Sylvia is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Benh LIEU SONG]