In early 2019, Hong Kong Watch zeroed in on the status of British National (Overseas) passport holders as a way to move the needle on Hong Kongers’ rights. “BNOs,” as they are known, are Hong Kong residents who obtained passports from Britain before the handover that entitled them to some diplomatic protections but not the right to settle in the UK.

The Foreign Office had previously argued that changing the status of BNOs would run counter to Britain’s obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and foreign secretary Dominic Raab and home secretary Priti Patel reportedly disagreed on what to do about them. “The Home Office was in favor of some kind of scheme for Hong Kongers and the Foreign Office was not,” de Pulford explains. The Foreign Office did not respond to a request for comment, while a Home Office spokesperson said, “the government is committed to fulfilling its moral obligations to British Nationals Overseas in Hong Kong.”

Armed with legal advice from the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre, a nonprofit legal institution, Hong Kong Watch lobbied Raab and Patel. The idea was that Britain owed safe haven to Hong Kongers, a people they colonized for more than a century after defeating the ruling Qing dynasty in the Opium Wars. In Hong Kong, protesters too appealed to history, waving the Union Jack and rallying in front of the British consulate.

A strong belief took hold in Westminster that the UK has “a moral and legal duty” towards Hong Kong “that no other country in the world has,” says Alicia Kearns, a Conservative lawmaker who sits on the House of Commons foreign affairs committee.

Image for article titled The campaign for Hong Kong’s freedoms has a new base: Britain

“A typhoon of anti-Chinese thinking”

When Johnson became prime minister, he said he would be “pro-China” and put economic ties with Beijing at the center of his “global Britain” plan. The decision to criticize China’s actions in Hong Kong has damaged that plan—but the move is pragmatic as much as it is idealistic.

The Trump administration, keen to see Britain pick a side in its trade war with China, has dangled the prospect of a post-Brexit trade deal as an incentive, emboldening UK hardliners who want a US-style “decoupling” from China. Some are also calling on their government to follow America’s lead in imposing sanctions on Hong Kong officials.

At the same time, Covid-19 has been a PR nightmare for Beijing, whose ambassadors aggressively went after journalists and governments who criticized China’s handling of the pandemic. Under pressure from Conservative lawmakers like Tom Tugendhat, head of the recently formed China Research Group (paywall), and former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, London announced in July it would ban Chinese telecom equipment giant Huawei from its networks.

David Howell, a peer in the House of Lords, worries that anti-China hardliners both in and out of Parliament have created a “typhoon of anti-Chinese thinking” through “megaphone diplomacy and chest-beating.” His advice: “Take a breath.” Otherwise, Howell warns, “they could find that some of the consequences could be ones that we could greatly regret.”

Simon Cheng speaks in a megaphone during a protest
Simon Cheng speaks during a protest outside the Chinese embassy in London.
Image: REUTERS/John Sibley

But efforts against Beijing are only likely to gather steam with the arrival in the UK of activists-in-exile. Last month, the UK gave asylum to Simon Cheng, a former employee at the British consulate in Hong Kong who was held and allegedly tortured on the mainland on suspicion of playing an organizing role in the protests. Already, Cheng has spoken of setting up a parliament-in-exile in the UK. And Nathan Law, a key figure in the pro-democracy movement who fled Hong Kong to avoid arrest under the security law, sees Britain as a strategic base for advocacy in Europe, which he believes is the next battleground.

As recently as a year ago (link in Chinese), Law wrote on his Patreon account that “it would be a waste for Hong Kongers to rely on the UK to speak up.” Now, he and others see Britain at the heart of the campaign to turn the pro-democracy movement into “an overseas force that cannot be ignored.”

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