Riot police arrest a demonstrator during a protest in Hong Kong on Wednesday
Riot police arrest a demonstrator during a protest in Hong Kong on Wednesday © Roy Liu/Bloomberg

Boris Johnson has condemned Beijing’s sweeping new security law for Hong Kong as a “serious breach” of the UK-China agreement on the territory and vowed to honour a pledge to open a path to citizenship for almost 3m residents of the territory.

Hong Kong police on Wednesday invoked the new law as they cracked down on thousands of protesters who defied Beijing to hold an annual march marking the anniversary of the financial hub’s 1997 handover from the UK to China. 

Under the law, terrorism, subversion and collusion with foreign elements attract penalties of up to life imprisonment. The UK, EU, US and Australia have criticised the legislation for undermining the freedoms that China had promised to Hong Kong.

Mr Johnson told MPs on Wednesday that the enactment and imposition of the law was “a clear and serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration”.

“It violates Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and is in direct conflict with Hong Kong’s basic law,” the prime minister said. “The law also threatens the freedoms and rights protected by the joint declaration.”

Mr Johnson added the government would introduce a new route to citizenship for people with British National Overseas status. About 350,000 people hold valid BNO passports, a document issued to Hong Kong residents born before the handover of the territory from UK to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

However, the pledge to extend visa rights will apply to anyone eligible for a BNO passport currently living in Hong Kong — about 2.55m people.

Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary, said those with BNO passport status would be granted five years’ limited leave to live and work in the UK and after this period would be able to apply for settled status. Following a further 12-month period, they would be permitted to apply for citizenship. “There will be no quotas on numbers,” he said.

Craig Choy, spokesman for campaign group Equal Rights for British Nationals Overseas, said the move was “timely and very much appreciated”.

But he urged the UK to “do more and lead by inviting more Commonwealth countries to adopt the same lifeboat policy”.

Ahead of the 1997 handover, the then Conservative government under John Major did not offer a path to citizenship for BNO passport holders, believing the move would be unpopular with the British public. 

Hong Kong police on Wednesday posted on Twitter a picture of a man arrested for carrying a Hong Kong independence flag — an illegal item under the new law. The force said more than 300 people had been detained for various offences, including nine for allegedly violating the new law.

Police said one officer was stabbed in the arm while making an arrest. Protesters also blocked roads and broke coronavirus limits in Hong Kong on large gatherings.

Campaigners for greater rights for BNO passport holders in Hong Kong had previously expressed concern over the scant detail in Mr Raab’s pledge in May to expand visa rights, fearing that they might have to renew visas every 12 months and could risk facing deportation if they lost their jobs.

Beijing did not immediately respond to Mr Johnson’s statement. Earlier on Wednesday Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of the Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said at a press conference that China would not be intimidated if foreign powers intervened.

“Gone are the days when Chinese people had to be at somebody’s disposal or rely on others for the air one breathes,” he said.

On Wednesday, the UK Foreign Office summoned Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming to a meeting with permanent under-secretary Simon McDonald to make clear the UK's “deep concern” about China’s imposition of national security legislation on Hong Kong.

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said the legislation demonstrated Beijing’s determination to improve the functioning of one country, two systems — the model of governance under which Hong Kong has enjoyed a high degree of autonomy.

Downing Street said Britain would continue to have a constructive relationship with Chinese companies working and investing in the UK.

“We have a strong and constructive relationship with China in many areas,” a spokesman said. “But this relationship does not come at any price. It has always been the case that where we have concerns we raise them, and where we need to intervene then we will.”

Officials said eligible BNO passport holders would be able to travel to the UK immediately and applications for visas would not be subject to any salary threshold.

On Wednesday, Cheng Man Kit — also known as Simon Cheng, a former employee of the British consulate in Hong Kong who claimed he was tortured by Chinese police in 2019 — was granted political asylum in Britain.

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