China has accused Britain of sheltering “wanted criminals” after prominent Hong Kong activist Nathan Law said he had been granted political asylum there.
The British government has said it is setting up a $59 million (43 million pound) fund to help migrants from Hong Kong settle in the country as they escape increasing political repression in the former colony.
The offer extends to holders of British National (Overseas) passports who have been offered special visas, opening a path to work, residency and eventual citizenship to up to 5 million of Hong Kong’s 7.4 million people.
The integration programme will provide funding to help arrivals access housing, education and jobs. Around 10 percent of the funds will go toward establishing 12 “virtual welcome hubs" across Great Britain and Northern Ireland to “coordinate support and give practical advice and assistance," the British Consulate-General said.
China has sharply criticised what it labels British abuse of the passports, saying it will no longer recognise them as travel documents or as a form of identification.
Most residents also carry Hong Kong or other passports so it's not clear what effect that would have.
“The move delivers on the UK’s historic and moral commitment to the people of Hong Kong who chose to retain their ties to the UK by taking up BN(O) status in 1997," the Consulate General said in a statement, referring to the year Hong Kong was handed over to China.
“It provides them with a pathway to live in the UK should they choose to do so," the consulate said.
It said that Overseas Passport holders have had their rights and freedoms restricted by the national security law imposed by Beijing, and "it is right that we change the entitlements in the UK which are attached to their status."
National security law breaks up opposition
China imposed the sweeping legislation on Hong Kong last year following massive anti-government protests in 2019 and the authorities have used it to virtually end political opposition and severely restrict free speech.
Changes to the electoral system have also closed off routes for political participation, with just 20 of the 90 members of the future Legislative Council to be directly elected. Beijing has also demanded that those running in elections must prove their loyalty to China and the Communist Party and threatens to prosecute anyone for statements regarded as unpatriotic, whether issued in Hong Kong or abroad.
Most opposition figures have either been jailed, intimidated into silence or fled abroad. Political gatherings have been broken up by police and even art exhibitions have been criticised for promoting opposition views.
One prominent opposition figure, Nathan Law, was granted refugee status in the UK.
“The fact that I am wanted under the National Security Law shows that I am exposed to severe political persecution and am unlikely to return to Hong Kong without risk," Law tweeted.
UK accused of sheltering 'wanted criminals'
China has accused the UK of sheltering "wanted criminals" after prominent Hong Kong activist Nathan Law said he had been granted political asylum there.
London and Beijing are at bitter odds over the fate of Hong Kong, with Britain accusing China of tearing up its promise to maintain key liberties in the former colonial territory for 50 years after the handover.
Law said on Wednesday he had been granted asylum in Britain, after fleeing the semi-autonomous territory following the introduction of a sweeping new security law.
That provoked an angry response in Beijing.
"The UK is clearly a platform for Hong Kong independence agitators, and provides so-called shelter for wanted criminals," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters.
Describing Law as a "criminal suspect," Zhao called the move "gross interference" in Hong Kong's judiciary.
"The UK should immediately correct its mistake, and stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China's internal affairs," he added.
'Severe political persecution'
Law, a 27-year-old former Hong Kong lawmaker and student activist, fled to the UK in July 2020 in the weeks after the National Security Law, opposed by anti-Beijing protesters, was imposed.
Law wrote on Twitter that he had been granted asylum in the UK after several interviews over a period of four months.
"The fact that I am wanted under the National Security Law shows that I am exposed to severe political persecution and am unlikely to return to Hong Kong without risk," he wrote.
The activist highlighted the plight of other asylum seekers in the UK from Hong Kong who might not have the same weight of evidence behind their claims.
"I hope that my case can help the Home Office understand more about the complicated situation in Hong Kong," he added.
"To free more protesters from Beijing's authoritarian oppression, the Home Office could consider more comprehensive evidence."
Champion of protest
Law's fate and the fate of potentially millions of Hong Kongers who Britain has offered a route to escape China's crackdown, has become a point of bitter diplomatic contention between Beijing and London, which ceded the former colonial territory in 1997.
China said earlier this year it will not recognise the British National (Overseas) passport for Hong Kongers because of a new visa scheme introduced in January offering a pathway to full UK citizenship for those who want to leave the territory.
Beijing and London have in recent weeks also clashed over Chinese sanctions against four UK entities and nine individuals including lawmakers that have spoken out in defence of China's Uighur Muslim minority.
Britain has condemned sweeping electoral reforms approved by Beijing last month, which are expected to further reduce the small number of democratically elected lawmakers in Hong Kong.
Candidates for public office in Hong Kong will have their entire history vetted as Beijing seeks to ensure "patriots" run the city.
Nine veteran activists were also convicted by a local court earlier this week for organising one of Hong Kong's biggest peaceful protests in 2019.
Last year, Britain protested jail terms handed to three leading activists from the party Demosisto, which Law cofounded.
The party disbanded on the same day China's new security legislation was imposed in Hong Kong.
In exile, Law has continued to champion the cause of anti-Beijing groups in Hong Kong on social media.
Last month, he hit out at mass trials of activists in Hong Kong, saying that they showed that "the Chinese Communist party nakedly abuses its powers and uses the courts to demonstrate that power."