The chair of the influential Foreign Affairs Committee has suggested giving Hong Kong citizens full nationality as a show of support, saying it should have happened in 1997.
In 1985, as Portugal was preparing to join what became known as the European Union, Britain was concerned that Portuguese attempts to give its colonial subjects of Macau citizenship would result in citizens of Hong Kong demanding much the same.
In 2019, as a wave of anti-Beijing protests has swept Hong Kong over the last 10 weeks, sometimes turning violent, Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the influential Foreign Affairs Committee in Britain is proposing that the British government expand an offer denied to the people of Hong Kong more than 30 years ago.
China regards the people of Hong Kong as Chinese nationals, however, many people in the ex British Dependent Territory have what is known as a British national (overseas) passport which has been described “as a second-tier citizenship”.
The passport offers limited rights and opportunities, such as staying in the UK for up to six months but no rights to live and work permanently in the UK.
Britain, in recently declassified letters between the British Home Secretary Douglas Hurd and Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe dated in 1985, fears were outlined by Hurd stating: “With Macau perhaps returning to the control of China at the same time as Hong Kong, it may well be that there will be many Macanese of Portuguese nationality who will decide that Europe rather than Macau is the place to be."
Hurd went on to strongly urge the then foreign secretary: “I must press you to do all you can with the Portuguese to encourage them to tighten up the criteria for granting Portuguese nationality to Macau residents.”
The Portuguese authorities for their part did not, in the end, distinguish between Macau subjects and those living in Portugal.
The suggestion that suddenly the rights of Hong Kong citizens is of paramount importance to British authorities may, therefore, come as a surprise to the islanders and anger Chinese authorities who will view it as an attempt by British authorities to further inflame tensions in the restive island.
The Chinese authorities have in the past claimed that any moves by the British government to extend citizenship rights to the people of Hong Kong would be a violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration which is the document in which both states agreed on the principles of the handover.
The current unrest in Hong Kong has placed China in a bind. On the one hand, the territory is governed under a principle known as “one country two systems” as agreed with the British.
China, and to a great extent, the Hong Kong activists and politicians rely on the “one country two systems” criteria for different reasons
China needs that formula to convince the other wayward province of Taiwan that should it re-integrate with the mainland and that it will be able to keep its way of doing things.
Politicians of Hong Kong for their part are attempting to convince Chinese authorities that maintaining the “one country two systems” formula would be in their interest when dealing with Taiwan.
The current anti-Beijing protests threaten to undo this delicate balancing act. But it is also an indication that the “one country two systems” formula is unstable on its own merits and instead needs an external reason.
Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, said earlier this week that continuing protests threaten to “push Hong Kong down a path of no return, will plunge Hong Kong society into a very worrying and dangerous situation”.
Chinese authorities are unlikely to allow the continued protests especially if it feels that its authority is being challenged domestically and internationally.