Boris Johnson declared on Wednesday that China's draconian new security law in Hong Kong was a "clear and serious breach" of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. It was among the strongest statements he's made as U.K. prime minister and potentially one of the most defining, provided he follows through. It's in Britain's long-term interest that he does.
In response to the new law, the U.K. will offer sanctuary to Hong Kong citizens born before it handed back the colony in 1997. Johnson had threatened the measure before, without providing much detail. But as demonstrators were being arrested this week, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced a "bespoke" immigration plan, which will entitle nearly 3 million people to so-called British National (Overseas) status and have their rights extended significantly.
That's a big change from Britain's current regime, under which some 350,000 Hong Kong citizens have the special BN(O) passport. At the moment, they're allowed to stay in Britain for up to six months, but they can't access public services. Raab's new guidelines would entitle the holder to live and work in the U.K. for five years, after which they can apply for "settled" status and, after another year, citizenship.
Immigration is usually a divisive word in Britain. For many years, it was arguably the most important issue for voters. The febrile debates on the subject reflected the tension between a Britain that wants to be seen as global, open and free trading, and an island state with years of stagnating productivity that views newcomers as a burden.
Johnson isn't going against public opinion on Hong Kong, however. Attitudes toward immigration have softened since the Brexit referendum in 2016. And Hong Kong is a matter of historical obligation and pride, since China has ignored the terms on which Britain handed back the territory.
It helps that many of the most ardent Brexiters in Johnson's Conservative Party have formed a caucus to lobby for tougher treatment of China. It also helps that the new policy is spearheaded by two cabinet members who are the products of immigrant families: Home Secretary Priti Patel (whose family were Asian Ugandans) and Raab (whose family were Jews from Czechoslovakia).
Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Britons polled by YouGov who had heard of the Hong Kong nationals plan said they supported the measure. That's a long way from the opposition that greeted the idea when it was mooted in 1990. Former Prime Minister John Major concluded then, probably correctly, that handing out British passports would have been deeply unpopular. That doesn't mean Johnson's new policy won't grow more controversial over time, if there are large numbers of new arrivals.
So sweeping a change to immigration rules must first be spelled out. Many Hong Kong Chinese are wary. Johnson has a habit of announcing grand moves only to follow up with policies that don't look much like the glossy brochure. They will look closely at the details, including the rules on dependents and any restrictions.
They'll also watch for China's reaction. As Raab acknowledged Wednesday, there's not much Britain can do if China blocks emigration. Certainly, Beijing will look for ways to discourage the move. Johnson may be making an offer he doesn't have to honor.
Assuming the government carries through, however, the new status would be a serious undertaking that fits more with Johnson's former liberal views on immigration than the poisonous rhetoric of the Brexit era. It won't have been lost on this government that many of the potential newcomers have fairly deep pockets and are well educated. For an aging U.K. trying to up its productivity game, Hong Kong's workers will be a blessing, just as they have been for Canada and Australia, who, as my colleague David Fickling wrote, accepted them in much higher numbers than Britain.
Depending on how many Hong Kong Chinese decide to come, the impact on London and other U.K. cities could be substantial. Hong Kong and Chinese buyers spent 7.7 billion pounds ($9.6 billion) on London property last year. Chinese nationals own 120,250 properties in the capital, with Hong Kong citizens owning 98,725, according to the Office for National Statistics. The upmarket estate agency Beauchamp Estates says demand among Chinese and Hong Kong citizens has been soaring recently, and accounts for 15% of prime residential sales above 1 million pounds in central London and 20% of deals above 10 million pounds, putting them ahead of Russian and Indian buyers.
Not all Hong Kong Chinese are well-off. About 20% of the population live below the poverty line. Even if those who can afford to emigrate will probably be wealthier, the government will also have to account for those who scrape together the cost of an airline ticket and need help to get on their feet when they arrive.
Raab says government modeling suggests there won't be a tidal wave of arrivals. But last year, as protests dragged on in Hong Kong, one survey found that 40% of its 7.5 million residents considered emigrating. If just one in 10 of those eligible decided to come to the U.K. that would be more than the country's entire net migration (270,000) in 2019.
Johnson is also under pressure to go further than the residency offer. Most Hong Kong Chinese aren't eligible to immigrate to Britain, including many of the younger protesters who are facing sanction or arrest. But there are limits to what the U.K. can absorb.
Given its historic obligations to the city, Britain will have to find other ways to project its diminished influence on the world stage. One way would be to pass Magnitsky-style legislation (used initially by the Americans against the Russians) so that Chinese officials involved in human rights violations face sanctions in the form of denying visas and freezing international bank accounts.
There's also the question of allowing Huawei Technlogies Co., the Chinese telecoms equipment maker, a role in building the U.K.'s 5G network. The National Cyber Security Center is reviewing the policy.
None of this was on the schedule for a post-Brexit U.K. The idea was that Britain's outward orientation and trade agenda would be anchored by close ties with China and the U.S. But the new security law, and its harsh application, is an affront to modern, democratic notions of human rights and the rule of law. If there is any issue on which democratic nations could find common ground and a coordinated response, it ought to be this one. Johnson's sending the right signals. He now needs to stay the course.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
Disclaimer: This opinion first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.