Hong Kongers’ Route to Britishness Winds Through the Ruins of Empire

Hong Kongers were given second-class nationality. Now they’ve been promised more.

A pro-democracy protester waves a British colonial flag in Hong Kong
A pro-democracy protester waves a British colonial flag during a "Lunch With You" rally in a shopping mall in the Central district in Hong Kong on June 1. Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images

In response to Beijing’s imposition of a much-hated national security law on Hong Kong, the British government recently announced that if the plans went ahead, Hong Kongers who have British National (Overseas) status would be allowed to live in the United Kingdom for 12 months, with a possible future pathway to U.K. citizenship. Whilst acknowledging the radical nature of the proposals—“ one of the biggest changes in our visa system in British history”, Boris Johnson said that it was a step the British government was prepared to take, and “take it willingly”. The decision to extend residency and possibly citizenship rights to an estimated 3 million people was welcomed by Conservative members of Parliament and pundits, even though opposition to mass immigration had been one of the flash points of the Brexit campaign. That was balanced by a feeling that BN(O)s, as the overseas nationals are referred to, are British and that the U.K. has a legal and moral duty to protect them, as well as a desire to stick one in the eye of the increasingly unpopular Beijing government. Polling has shown strong public support for the proposal, with 42 percent of the respondents surveyed by YouGov in favor against only 24 percent who oppose the move.

But the exact nature of the BN(O) status remains poorly understood. At first, newspapers stated that only 300,000 people would be eligible, although the real number is, in fact, far higher. The 300,000 figure represented the number of BN(O) passports in circulation, not the number of people who are eligible for one. Moreover, there is scant understanding of the difference between a British national and a British citizen. At the core of the misunderstanding is a mix of imperial history and deliberate obfuscation. Ironically, BN(O)s were given that status on the assumption that few would ever cross the world to settle in the U.K. in the first place, a belief that went out of the window thanks to Beijing’s recent crackdown. To understand the origins of the BN(O) status requires untangling the messy history of what it means to be British.

Originally, almost all inhabitants of the British Empire were British subjects without distinction of race. Formally, an inhabitant of London whose ancestors came to Britain with William the Conqueror was as British, legally speaking, as an inhabitant of Punjab whose ancestors had never left India. If one of the fishermen of Hong Kong made his way to England in 1843, a year after the territory was taken as part of the empire, and bought some property, he would have been as free to vote as any wealthy male subject of the crown. In practice, although many colonial British subjects came to the U.K., and some achieved high office—the first Indian member of Parliament, Dadabhai Naoroji, took his seat in 1892—nonwhite colonial immigration to the U.K. was discouraged regardless of British subject status. Dominions were allowed to impose their own restrictions, and countries such as Australia and Canada limited or banned nonwhite immigration until after World War II.

However, with decolonization and the increasing independence of British dominions, things rapidly became complicated. At first, there were attempts at preserving a common Commonwealth citizenship, which allowed for individual Commonwealth members to create their own citizenships, to be held concurrently with British subject status. But increased nonwhite Commonwealth immigration quickly led to the introduction of restrictions on the right of Commonwealth citizens to come to the U.K. unless they had links to the United Kingdom and Ireland in 1962. Nine years later, the rules were relaxed to allow anyone who had a grandparent born in the British Isles to enter the U.K. freely—effectively, a racial restriction. British citizenship as it exists today was only created in 1983, the last step in the replacement of an imperial citizenship by a national one.

As a result, there are currently no fewer than six different types of British nationality, only one of which—straightforward British citizenship—entitles its holders to enter and live in the United Kingdom without any restriction, known as the right of abode. The remainder have the right to a British passport and to enter the U.K. for short periods, but they are effectively second-class nationals.

Apart from BN(O)s, those who still hold British nationality without corresponding British citizenship tend to be those who slipped through the cracks of decolonization, eligible neither for the citizenship of the country in which they lived at independence nor for British citizenship. The most famous group in that situation were the Ugandan Asians, who were not automatically given Ugandan citizenship upon independence because they were seen as colonial interlopers, but were also denied British citizenship, because they lacked the requisite link to the U.K. Commonwealth and Irish citizens also possess various rights owing to their historical links with Britain, such as the ability to vote in British elections if resident in the country.

In the case of Hong Kong, as a crown colony until the 1997 handover to China, most of its inhabitants were British subjects. Many took advantage of this to move to Britain to work before their entry was curtailed in the 1960s. In 1983, most Hong Kongers of Chinese ancestry were automatically turned into British Overseas Territories citizens, who lacked most of the rights associated with British citizenship. Their ethnically British counterparts, meanwhile, were given British citizenship as long as one of their grandparents had been born in the British Isles. The same fate befell the inhabitants of other British Overseas Territories who lacked the statutory grandparent, although in the aftermath of the Falklands War the British government extended full British citizenship to Falkland Islanders.

Despite protests in Hong Kong and in London, the British government refused to change its position. Even the pleas of successive governors fell on hard ears. The best it would do was to give Chinese Hong Kongers who applied a new status: British National (Overseas). At the same time, 50,000 households, mostly those belonging to those who worked for the crown colony’s government, were given British citizenship under an ad hoc scheme, though with the expectation that most of them would not leave the colony after the 1997 handover. (Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s current chief executive, was one of the beneficiaries.)

Compounding difficulties, the Chinese government naturally did not wish for a brain drain from Hong Kong post-handover, and it insisted that any legal status granted by the British government to Hong Kongers would not be recognized in mainland China, although these passports could be used by their holders to travel abroad. (To this day, China refuses to recognize the British citizenship of those who obtained it under the special scheme.) The British government also agreed, as part of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, that BN(O)s would not have the right to abode. All BN(O)s remain Chinese citizens.

The British government never intended for BN(O)s to come to the U.K. in large numbers. Instead, it was viewed as a confidence measure for Hong Kongers, many of whom acquired foreign citizenship in the run-up to the handover to China. A similar arrangement had been made three decades earlier for Chinese inhabitants of Malaysia, known as the “Queen’s Chinese,” without any major outflow to the U.K., although some in that category are now caught in a legal limbo. Now, with the prospect of major upheaval in Hong Kong, the initial assumption—which was always dependent on Chinese compliance with the Sino-British Joint Declaration—looks increasingly shaky, hence the latest moves to increase the rights of BN(O)s.

Britain’s willingness to welcome fleeing Hong Kongers stands in contrast to its historical reluctance to accept Ugandan Asians, most of whom had British passports, when they were expelled by Idi Amin in 1972. The expulsion came at a low point in British race relations, and the U.K. government made strenuous, though mostly unsuccessful, efforts to redirect Ugandan refugees to Commonwealth countries and to British crown colonies. (Only Canada and the Falkland Islands proved willing to receive them in large numbers.) Plans to buy out the refugees’ British nationality for 2,000 pounds were only shelved after it was pointed out that anti-immigration politicians would seek to extend the policy to nonwhite immigrants already in the U.K. Ultimately, 27,000 Ugandan Asians were airlifted to Britain, though not after extensive political controversy. That Britain is now willing to welcome so many more imperial refugees is a stark illustration of the shift in public attitudes since.

But that is not the end of the story. Inevitably, some who wished to become BN(O)s missed the original application deadlines, while those who were born after July 1, 1997—a category that includes many of those on the front lines of the Hong Kong protest movement—are not eligible for the status, which cannot be inherited. For the offer to become meaningful, BN(O)s will also have to be given the right of taking their non-BN(O) family members with them, further swelling the numbers of immigrants, although it is likely that only a small fraction of those eligible will choose to come to Britain rather than join established Hong Konger communities in places like Australia and Canada, the latter of which is home to half a million people of Hong Kong descent. Taiwan, which has promised to introduce special measures to assist fleeing Hong Kongers, might also prove a more appealing destination due to its cultural and geographical proximity.

Once considered an undesirable presence by U.K. leaders, BN(O)s are now viewed as a potential bonanza to British economic life, as well as an opportunity to take a firm stand against the Chinese government’s encroachments in Hong Kong. The starkest illustration of the shift in attitudes comes from the Conservative grandee Norman Tebbit, who in 1990 called an influx of immigrants from Hong Kong a “destabilizing factor in society,” and who infamously questioned the loyalty of immigrants by asking which cricket team they supported. Last year, he was a signatory of a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson that called the decision to deprive BN(O)s of British citizenship a “historic error.” Such are the varied legacies of empire.

Yuan Yi Zhu is a college lecturer in politics at Pembroke College, Oxford and a DPhil candidate in International Relations at Nuffield College, Oxford.