From today (22 December 2020), Hong Kong has banned all passenger flights from the UK. The Hong Kong Government banned flights from the UK for reasons of public health, due to a new strain of Coronavirus having been discovered in the UK. Despite Hongkongers having demanded that the Hong Kong Government close its borders in the beginning of 2020 in order to prevent the import of COVID-19 form Mainland China, after the virus was first reported in Wuhan, many are questioning why the Hong Kong Government now seems so eager to close its borders. Many of those questioning the Hong Kong Government’s motives take a rather cynical view of its actions, which, in a way, is understandable judging from the actions of the Hong Kong and Beijing Governments since the pro-democracy protests started in Hong Kong in June 2019.
When Beijing announced its plan to legislate a National Security Law for Hong Kong, many politicians outside of Hong Kong were quick to criticise Beijing’s plans, with the United Kingdom Government announcing that if Beijing were to proceed with imposing the National Security Law on Hong Kong, the United Kingdom would have no choice but to look at a way to assist British Nationals (Overseas) (“BNOs”) in Hong Kong, who would otherwise be left to face the consequences of a breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. After the National Security Law came into force in Hong Kong with barely any notice on 30 June 2020, the United Kingdom Government announced planes to create a bespoke visa scheme for BNOs with a pathway to full British citizenship. Beijing, as predicted, responded with complaints that the United Kingdom was breaching the Joint Declaration, a treaty which Beijing has referred to as an historical document with no practical significance. What started worrying Hongkongers though was the United Kingdom Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, commenting in July 2020 that there was little the United Kingdom could do if Beijing decided to block Hongkongers’ exit from Hong Kong.
The United Kingdom Government, in catering for this fear, created an exceptional policy through which BNOs could come to the United Kingdom to wait for the BNO visa scheme to go live on 31 January 2021. Hongkongers have already started to take advantage of the generous “Leave Outside the Rules” policy which the United Kingdom Home Office has put in place for BNO Hongkongers and their family members.
On 4 December 2020, the Hong Kong Government published in the gazette a Bill which, the Hong Kong Government says would improve the asylum system in Hong Kong, however an amendment to the Immigration Ordinance in the proposed Bill would also give the Hong Kong Government the power to prevent people from boarding an aircraft, or any other forms of transportation as may be further specified. This Bill passed its first reading in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council on 16 December 2020, with Hong Kong Free Press reporting that this is being brought through the Legislative Council at “short notice”.
With the ban on flights from the United Kingdom, the practical effect is that this will also result in the cancellation of flights from Hong Kong to the United Kingdom, without the Hong Kong Government banning those flights. Hong Kong’s flag carrier, Cathay Pacific, has announced that all flights to and from the United Kingdom have been cancelled until at least 10 January 2021.
With the BNO visa scheme officially starting in just a little over a month, Hongkongers are worried that the amendment to the Immigration Ordinance could be used to prevent people from travelling to the United Kingdom, and the ban on flights from the United Kingdom a stopgap before the legislation is passed.
Whilst those who subscribe to the worries above may be called cynics, only time will tell whether those who refused to believe the Hong Kong and Beijing Governments could go so low were simply over optimistic and naive. But by the time the answer is made known, it may just be too late for many who wish to leave Hong Kong.