Boris Johnson’s Gesture

In an extraordinary gesture guaranteed to enrage Beijing, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has offered residents of Hong Kong a passport to freedom. Literally.

China’s recent announcement that it intends to impose a national security law on Hong Kong has aroused fears that the autonomy and freedoms enshrined in its 1997 Basic Law are about to be swept away. Indeed, the draft resolution already passed by the Chinese parliament reads like a founding document for a police state.

The provisions are still hazy, but the criminalization of acts of “secession…subversion… terrorism…and foreign intervention” that are on the way would give security forces carte blanche to do as they see fit in putting down the obstreperous freedom-mongers who so irritate them.

Enter Boris Johnson. In a letter published in the South China Morning Post, Johnson, an obstreperous freedom-monger in his own right, pledged that “if China proceeds to justify their fears, then Britain could not in good conscience shrug our shoulders and walk away; instead, we will honor our obligations and provide an alternative.”

The special obligation was a reference to the U.K.’s having signed over their former colony to the mainland, but that a “one country, two systems” scheme would prevail, providing Hong Kongers with the freedom they had been accustomed to. If that agreement is breached, Johnson says, his country will act.

The PM proceeded to outline “a path to citizenship,” whereby Hong Kong residents who hold BNO (British National Overseas) passports would be able to move to Britain. Currently, the BNO serves as a kind of semi-passport, merely allowing holders to travel to the U.K. without a visa. Johnson’s proposal would expand the BNO, making it a basis for full citizenship.

There are 350,000 people with BNOs in Hong Kong, and another 2.5 million who are eligible for one and might be included in the offer as well.

The reaction in Beijing was predictable. They accused Britain of “interfering in China’s internal affairs,” and disdained use of the BNO as a way out of the mainland’s grasp.

“All Chinese residing in Hong Kong are Chinese nationals, whether or not they are holders of the BNO,” spokesman Zhao Lijian said last week. “China reserves the right to take corresponding measures.”

The charge of interference in internal affairs is always handy for any country bent on keeping outsiders from prying into human rights abuses, and China has used the line many times in the past.

In this case, though, 10 Downing Street is not telling the Communist Party how to run China or Hong Kong; it is merely saying that Hong Kongers who want to leave will be welcome in Britain.

The Communist Party’s reaction recalls the behavior of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who ordered the building of a wall in Berlin to stop the flight of East Germans under Communist control into free West Berlin. Despite the wall, some 5,000 managed to escape, adding their numbers to the 3.5 million who had already left. More than 1,000 people were killed trying to escape.

As President John F. Kennedy said in a speech delivered in West Berlin in June 1963, “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.”

China doesn’t have to build a wall to keep the Hong Kongers in. All they have to do is order their airport officials not to honor the BNO. So they will not provide the West with such a visible symbol of the ugliness of totalitarianism — replete with guard towers, barbed wire and anti-vehicle trenches — as Khrushchev did. But it would be an ugly deed.

In true totalitarian style, Zhang Xiaoming, the deputy director of China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, defended the national security law as the opposite of what it portends, not a threat to freedom but a guarantor of it.

Hong Kongers will be “free from the fear of violence. They can ride the train and go shopping freely. They can speak the truth on the street without the fear of being beaten up,” he said. “In particular, they no longer have to worry about young people being brainwashed.”

Zhang has evidently been brushing up on his Orwell, who prophesied that, in the future, dictatorships would proclaim that “Freedom is Slavery.” In the Soviet Union, the streets were also safe; the KGB made sure of that.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday night, Hong Kong marked the first anniversary of the protest movement. Numbers were estimated in the thousands by the Guardian, a mere shadow of the peaceful, million-person march last June 19, when China’s encroachment on local freedoms was at an earlier stage.

Those who took part this time did so in defiance of a police order. Protests remain under a ban issued in March, when pandemic regulations capped gatherings at eight persons, even though such restrictions have since been lifted at entertainment venues, according to the Guardian.

Like other recent protests, this one was dispersed by riot police charging the crowd and by the spraying of pepper gas. Fifty-three people were arrested, the authorities said.

As Johnson made clear, his government will not take action unless Beijing carries out its threat. In the meantime, it’s a remarkable gesture. As Johnson wrote, “This would amount to one of the biggest changes to our visa system in history. If it proves necessary Britain will take this step and take it willingly.”

It is unlikely that the gesture will be sufficient. Even with the threat of sanctions by the U.S., there may be no way to provide an escape route for Hong Kong residents.

But one thing we know. If a wall is put up, eventually it will come down.