STEPHEN GLOVER: Boris Johnson is right – we must help the people of Hong Kong. But what if millions want to move here?
When we look back at the pandemic in a few years’ time, might we marvel that a momentous decision was made by the Government on another issue without anyone considering its consequences?
Boris Johnson yesterday landed in the pages of The Times with an article promising a route to British citizenship for up to three million people living in Hong Kong who, at the moment, have a right to British National (Overseas) passports.
This was a generous and honourable thing to do. China is threatening to impose a new security law on the former British colony, which would bring it under the heel of Beijing.
Many Hong Kong inhabitants would find living under an autocratic regime intolerable.
Boris Johnson yesterday landed in the pages of The Times with an article promising a route to British citizenship for up to three million people living in Hong Kong who, at the moment, have a right to British National (Overseas) passports. Pictured: At the Downing Street coronavirus press conference last night
Like others in the Tory Party, Mr Johnson feels guilty that more was not done to protect Hong Kongers when the territory was handed back to China in 1997, though it was supposed to retain a large degree of autonomy until 2047.
Those freedoms have been whittled away, and may soon be consigned to history.
Let’s be in no doubt that the Prime Minister’s undertaking amounts to a major commitment which dwarfs the sudden admission of some 27,000 Ugandan Asians in 1972 on the run from the tyrant Idi Amin.
They proved to be of great benefit to the economy.
As a result of the Prime Minister’s offer, it is theoretically possible that hundreds of thousands — indeed, millions — of Hong Kong Chinese could choose to settle here in the foreseeable future, if Beijing continues to clamp down.
Beijing’s spokesperson Zhao Lijian (pictured) lodged stern representations with the UK as he accused Britain of ‘blindly commenting on and grossly interfering in our domestic affairs’ yesterday
Do the British people want this to happen? Could our creaking infrastructure, and hard-pressed schools and hospitals, cope with such an influx? What about housing?
There is a dire shortage of homes as it is, which would only be made worse by a new wave of immigration.
My strong suspicion is that neither the Prime Minister nor the Cabinet has had the time or inclination to give much, if any, thought to these questions in the midst of a pandemic. Not for the first time, Boris is thinking with his heart.
On the whole — though not without some reservations, which I’ll come to later — I’m on his side. Honour is important in politics.
Even at this late stage, we shouldn’t abandon our former colonial subjects to an increasingly brutal and nasty regime.
People wearing protective face masks hold placards as they attend a candlelight vigil ahead of the 31st anniversary of the crackdown of pro-democracy protests at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, after police rejects a mass annual vigil on public health grounds, in Hong Kong last night
Back in the late 1980s, the Tory hierarchy was unwilling to countenance mass immigration from Hong Kong. Norman Tebbit, who was one of Margaret Thatcher’s key lieutenants, feared in 1989 that ‘Britain would be swamped by people of different culture, history and religion’.
He said this about six months after the Chinese regime had murdered an unknown number of demonstrators (probably several thousand) in the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.
Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe said something similar in milder terms at a lunch I attended around the same time. In his opinion, those who proposed throwing open our doors to the Hong Kong Chinese were naive, and didn’t understand the British people. They would never put up with it.
Thirty years later — and after unprecedented levels of immigration from the EU and elsewhere which would have seemed inconceivable three decades ago — No 10 has reached the opposite conclusion.
The people of Hong Kong undoubtedly have a great deal to offer our economy. Its work force is highly trained and, according to international comparisons, better educated than its British counterpart.
Though immigrants from the territory would need schools and hospitals like everyone else, they would very likely make an enormous contribution, and not represent any kind of drain.
Hong Kong is a dynamic and entrepreneurial society with a per capita income 50 per cent greater than ours.
Nor is it certain, if Chinese policies were to trigger a large-scale exodus, that a majority of Hong Kongers would want to come here.
Countries such as Canada, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand would compete to attract well-trained, highly skilled and often well-funded immigrants.
It’s likely, by the way, that Beijing would be happy to see the back of them. It would have got rid of people it regards as dangerous malcontents, whose liberal yearnings could otherwise spread like a contagion to China itself.
Hong Kong’s separate identity would be erased.
All in all, there are many reasons for thinking that granting nearly three million Hong Kong people eventual British citizenship could be a great boon — as well as a resounding blow struck in the name of honour and decency.
But there are dangers. What would happen if the situation in Hong Kong deteriorated so rapidly that hundreds of thousands of its citizens sought to come to Britain in a very short period of time?
Unlikely, you may say, and it probably is. But projecting future immigration flows is a mug’s game.
If Boris has bothered to ask anyone in the Home or Foreign Office of the magnitude of a possible influx, he has almost certainly been given a wrong answer.
A pro-democracy demonstrator raises his British National Overseas (BNO) passports during a protest against new national security legislation in Hong Kong on Monday
Never forget that in 2004, when the Blair government gave the green light to immigration from Poland and seven other Eastern European states, it forecast a very modest annual number of migrants — between 5,000 and 13,000.
Within five years, nearly a million had arrived.
Assuming the Prime Minister is sincere in the munificent offer he made in his article — and there is no reason to suppose he isn’t — the Government would be wise to envisage the possibility of a torrent rather than a trickle.
In short, a proper plan, rather than a well-intentioned gesture, is needed.
Other countries should be involved, partly to put pressure on China to reconsider its security law (several voices are likely to be more effective than one), and partly to discuss how they might collectively provide a home for Hong Kongers, should it come to that.
Will Boris Johnson’s undeniably provocative initiative induce the Chinese government to calm down? I rather doubt it.
Beijing’s rubber-stamp parliament last week approved a national security law to ban what it deems as ‘subversion, treason and foreign interference’ in Hong Kong. Pictured, protesters march again Beijing’s plans to impose national security legislation in Hong Kong on May 24
Beijing’s immediate angry response — accompanied by the usual claptrap about Britain’s ‘colonial mindset’ — doesn’t suggest an imminent capitulation.
The Prime Minister’s enemies on the Left often scatter accusations against him of racism and heartlessness. I’d say his proposal of ultimate British citizenship for up to three million Hong Kong Chinese amounts to pretty incontrovertible evidence of how unjustified such charges are.
It’s worth noting that Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Home Secretary Priti Patel are enthusiastically behind him.
The former’s Jewish father came to the UK in 1938 as a six-year-old from Czechoslovakia after the country had been partly absorbed by the Nazis. The latter’s parents both left Uganda in the 1960s.
As for the wider Tory Party, I’m pretty sure it harbours a degree of historical guilt over the refusal of the Thatcher administration to agree to significant immigration from Hong Kong in the late 1980s.
That wrong should be put right if China continues along its present destructive path. But Boris mustn’t forget the ill-will and unhappiness in many parts of the country caused by uncontrolled immigration during the first two decades of this century.
For goodness’ sake, it was the resentment of these long-ignored people that, in large measure, led to Brexit. This time, if it comes to it, the Government must get it right.
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