LONDON -- Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week wrote that the U.K. would give around 3 million eligible Hong Kong residents a potential "route to citizenship" should China impose a national security law on the former British colony.
Citing fears the law will erode the "one country, two systems" principle that provides Hong Kongers with more freedoms than mainland citizens, Johnson made the pledge in op-eds for the South China Morning Post and The Times.
"If China imposes its national security law, the British government will change our immigration rules and allow any holder of these passports from Hong Kong to come to the U.K. for a renewable period of 12 months and be given further immigration rights, including the right to work, which could place them on a route to citizenship," Johnson wrote.
The vow, which sparked a strong backlash from Chinese officials, is part of a series of announcements that have angered Beijing. The U.K. has also questioned China's initial efforts to contain the spread the coronavirus, and has called for an independent investigation into the origin of the outbreak. Britain is also weighing whether to shut out Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies from ultrafast 5G networks in the country.
The recent developments are in stark contrast to the "golden era" of Sino-British relations under the premiership of David Cameron. Back then, economic interests were front and center as Britain actively sought Chinese investment.
The change in tone demonstrates how much Hong Kong, which Britain returned to China in 1997, is seen as a red line for the U.K. government.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told parliament this week: "I hope the whole House agrees that we, as the United Kingdom, have historic responsibilities, a duty I would say, to the people of Hong Kong."
When HSBC and Standard Chartered expressed support this week for the new national security legislation for Hong Kong, Johnson's spokesperson said: "Our position is very clear. If China proceeds with this security legislation, it would be in direct conflict with its obligations under the Joint Declaration."
The shift also shows how much the political mood toward China has darkened in recent months as the center of gravity in the ruling Conservative party seems to have taken a more skeptical stance. The U.K.'s China policy, analysts say, could be the next major issue that divides the country as Britain formulates its foreign policy framework outside of the European Union.
A major driver is a growing distrust in the U.K. of how Chinese authorities dealt with the coronavirus outbreak.
A YouGov poll in late April found 51% of respondents said the outbreak had negatively impacted their views on China as a country. A survey published by the British Foreign Policy Group in May found that "83% of Britons now say they do not trust China to act responsibly in the world."
Tensions over China are continuing to play out over Huawei. The U.K. earlier this year defied heavy U.S. lobbying to allow the tech juggernaut to provide "noncore" elements of Britain's new 5G network.
The decision brought a negative reaction from China hawks in parliament, who established a group to scrutinize ties with Beijing in April. It is now said to have more than 50 members.
Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and the new China Research Group, told the Nikkei Asian Review there is little understanding of the policies that are coming out of China.
"Beijing matters more than ever, and it is important that U.K. parliamentarians understand what is going [on] there," Tugendhat said. "The deceit in the early days of the coronavirus has meant more people are aware of the risk of dependency on Beijing's authoritarian government. That's caused many to adopt a harder line over China."
Some academics are cynical of how these views emerged.
Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King's College in London and an associate at Chatham House, told Nikkei: "Suddenly because of coronavirus, British politicians have discovered China. They've suddenly realized there's this thing called China, and a lot of them are seeking political opportunity."
"It's an incoherent response," Brown said. "We see America in such a mess at the moment, and the U.K. is having such a challenge dealing with coronavirus, and going into probably the worst economic conditions it's been in modern times."
Faced with an internal party rebellion and a marked shift in the perception of China, local media is reporting that Johnson may reconsider the Huawei decision even if that means higher costs and a slower rollout of 5G across the country.
Professor Rana Mitter, director of the University of Oxford China Centre, said that the U.K.'s China policy is in flux, with security becoming a bigger focus.
"It's still on a process which has been going for some years, at least five years of moving from one that was almost entirely economic in its orientation to one in which economics and security are now playing a balanced role against each other," he said.
Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at defense and security think tank RUSI, says the U.K. has been lacking a coherent China policy since the Cameron days. It is now attempting to formulate a holistic Asia policy -- rather than what was largely seen as a China policy when it came to Asia -- as part of its Global Britain vision outside of the EU, Pantucci said.
The U.K. may be pushed to take a tougher position, in line with the shift in global perceptions of China.
But Pantucci said Britain is unlikely to fully toe Washington's hard line despite pressure to do so.
"The view is very much we need to find a way, we need to continue to confront things we have a problem with, but we also need to continue to try and find a way to liaise with China in some way," he said.
When calling on Beijing to reconsider the proposed national security legislation, Johnson also said, "We want a modern and mature relationship, based on mutual respect and recognizing China's place in the world."
As Foreign Secretary Raab said, it will no longer be "business as usual" when it comes to China.
Additional reporting by Andrew Sharp