Hong Kong no longer recognises dual citizenship according to China‘s Nationality Law, thereby preventing dual nationals from accessing foreign consular assistance.
Following reports from Canada last week about an imprisoned dual citizen being forced to choose a single nationality, Western countries voiced their concerns about the city enforcing Chinese regulations. On 10 February 2021, Carrie Lam, chief executive of Hong Kong, confirmed that Hongkongers with dual citizenship are now subject to the norms of mainland China. In other words, despite holding multiple passports, Hong Kong treats its residents as being Chinese nationals and does not afford them the consular protection resulting from foreign citizenship.
This is affecting hundreds of thousands of residents, a majority of whom have British or Canadian citizenship. The UK Foreign Office, as well as Australia and Canada, have issued travel warnings stating that their dual citizens will be treated as Chinese citizens by local authorities and that consular assistance cannot be provided anymore. In addition to people living in Hong Kong, this also concerns the large number of dual citizens travelling to Hong Kong for business purposes or tourism.
According to Article 3 of the Nationality Law of the People’s Republic of China from 1980, dual nationality is not recognised for any Chinese national.
Consequently, dual citizens are barred from any consular protection, such as a consular visits. The only exception, according to Carrie Lam, whose own family has British passports, is if individuals are granted permission to renounce their Chinese nationality. However, in that case, they risk losing their residency rights to live and work in Hong Kong.
The immediate problem with this policy arises when individuals are arrested, and compelled to declare their singular citizenship. In a situation of detainment, people will most likely not understand the full implications of their decision and be under duress to give up their foreign nationality. This opens up abuse by authorities, without foreign countries being able to intervene. Other states are prevented from exercising their consular protection rights to provide help for their citizens abroad.
The authorities of Hong Kong claim that the execution of the Chinese nationality law is not a change in practice because it has been applicable to the Special Administrative Region since it was transferred from Britain to China in 1997. Nevertheless, western diplomats argue that there were no issues with visiting dual nationals in custody previously. This strict enforcement of Chinese law is in line with the fact that China has increased its control over Hong Kong in the last years, particularly last summer when the draconian Chinese national security law was extended to have jurisdiction over anyone in Hong Kong, regardless of nationality or residency status.
The UK responded to this move by granting a pathway to full citizenship for any British national overseas (BNO) passport holder. A new BNO visa allows British overseas nationals from Hong Kong to live, work and study in the UK for up to 5 years – after which they are able to fully settle in the UK. This new immigration route is open for the 2.9 million BNO status holders and their estimated 2.3 million eligible dependants. According to the Home Office, already 7,000 BNO passport holders have been granted leave to remain in the UK since July 2020, even before the new rules came into force on 31 January 2021. It is expected that up to 150,000 BNO status holders will arrive in the UK in the first year, and up to 320,000 over five years.
However, this new route is only open to individuals with a BNO – which was given to the citizens of Hong Kong if they had registered before the Handover of the territory to China 1 July 1997. Therefore anyone born after 1997 does not have BNO status. This particularly impacts the thousands of young activists fearing persecution by the authorities who are only able to take advantage of the new immigration system as a dependent, but not on their own. Besides regular immigration, the other option for Hong Kong nationals is the Youth Mobility Scheme, which is limited to 1000 places each year.
Moreover, the Hong Kong BNO visa route is not open for public funds. Instead, the visa costs, the Immigration Health Surcharge to be able to access NHS services, and all the costs relating to living in the UK have to be borne by the applicants. They are expected to demonstrate that they are self-sufficient and that they can accommodate themselves and their families for at least the first six months in the UK.
This shows that the UK expects only the wealthy, educated Hongkongers to arrive in the UK who can afford turning their lives upside down and rebuilding successful lives in the UK. A Bank of America report has predicted a capital outflow of more than £26 bn to the UK through Hong Kong residents coming to the UK. Undoubtedly, emigration from Hong Kong will benefit the prosperity of the UK.
A panel discussion with community experts on the role of civil society in welcoming Hong Kongers to the UK and helping them build new lives, organised by UK Welcomes Refugees and Hong Kong Watch on 11 February 2021, outlined ways of supporting newcomers, and welcomed the new UK policy. The panelists emphasised the need of a unified government approach to ensure assistance in finding employment, accommodation, schools and networks. At the moment, civil society is creating platforms for arrivals and providing mental and legal support as well as assistance with accommodation, but a government-led initiative and designated resources for relocating Hongkongers is necessary. Furthermore, most panellists favoured the approach of Community Sponsorship to welcome immigrants into the society, integrate them and facilitate their resettlement.
Fred Wong, from the Hong Kong Assistance and Resettlement Community (HK ARC), stressed the importance of helping those Hong Kong immigrants that are not wealthy, or might not even have BNO status. He pointed out that many young activists had no access to shelter or food after arriving in the UK. Wong is demanding a separate policy to give people born after 1997 the right to stay, as there is currently no clear immigration pathway for young protestors.
The panel discussion also raised the issue of increased racism of hate-crime against Chinese people since the outbreak of Covid-19. Dr Krish Kandiah, who recently launched the Hong Kong Welcome Churches movement, called it the
”largest and fastest immigration to the UK since Windrush”.
Possible resentment against high numbers of highly employable Hongkongers arriving during a global pandemic is an issue that needs to be urgently addressed by the UK government. Stephen Kinnock MP warned that, in the worst case, mismanaged immigration could lead to increasing xenophobia.
China has increasingly restricted the autonomy of Hong Kong since it became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) in 1997. China pressuring residents of Hong Kong to give up their foreign nationalities, is just the latest expression of this policy of undermining the “one country, two systems” framework for Hong Kong. While the new British immigration route for people from Hong Kong is a step in the right direction, it has to be ensured that not only their economic benefit to the UK is welcomed, but that Hongkongers in need of protection receive the humanitarian support they are entitled to as humans. As Debbie Weekes-Bernard, London Deputy Mayor for Social Integration, Social Mobility, and Community Engagement, rightly put:
“Welcome is not just a word, it involves a lot of work”.