Best of both worlds coming to an end?

Editorial | Mary Ma 15 Jan 2021

Was Executive Council member Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee testing the water on somebody's behalf when she called for a "cut-off date" to strip Hongkongers holding foreign passports of their SAR citizenship, including their right to live and vote here?

It would be naive for anyone to assume Beijing would not hit back after London opened a new route for Hong Kong's British National (Overseas) holders to settle in the UK.

But it would be too simplistic to accept Ip's view that the retaliatory measures being considered by Beijing's policymakers should be across the board to affect all Hongkongers who have obtained foreign nationalities via routes other than the BNO visa, applications for which open on January 31.

Prior to the BNO scheme opening, thousands from Hong Kong have landed in the UK via a temporary arrangement called "leave outside the Rules" that allows them to work and study while waiting to apply for the BNO visa from within the UK.

As a former director of immigration, Ip certainly understands the nationality laws here and elsewhere better than her boss, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

Ip was not factually wrong when appealing for the end a long-standing practice that permits Hong Kong emigrants to have the best of both worlds, while mainlanders and the nationals of some other countries do not have such a benefit.

For example, mainland Chinese have to give up their nationality and residence after naturalizing as foreign citizens in the US, UK and elsewhere, and have to apply for a travel visa every time they visit their families in China.

Singaporeans also have to relinquish their nationality after obtaining foreign citizenship.

Hong Kong's situation is rather special due to historical reasons, with residents having emigrated to, say, the UK and naturalized as UK nationals able to continue living in Hong Kong without restrictions.

If accepted, Ip's demand to end this would be earthshaking because many people would be affected, including a substantial number who are active in pro-Beijing circles.

This is likely to be Beijing's plan and, from their perspective, it makes sense to hit back in kind, narrowing the blow to BNO holders who benefit from the UK's "lifeboat" scheme.

What will they do? It is very likely that BNO holders will not be allowed to have the best of both worlds and will have to choose between them. This will prove difficult for many due to their strong local family ties.

Ultimately, Beijing's objective is to place as much deterrence as possible in the way of those considering the latest BNO offer.

Considering the UK's domestic politics, it is not guaranteed the BNO scheme will last permanently after it comes into effect at the end of this month.

There have been a number of instances over the years of the Home Office changing the country's immigration policy following general elections.

It is worth noting that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, while calling out Beijing over what he claimed to be "cotton slavery" in Xinjiang, maintained the need to strike a balance in ties with China.

In this sense, there could be policy risks in the future when the Sino-British relationship improves and the UK government changes the terms and conditions for the BNO scheme.

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