The UK government has said that it is open to extending the visa rights of British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders in Hong Kong to offer them a path to the country's citizenship unless China 'steps back' from a new security law in the former British territory.
China's parliament on Thursday approved the new law which would make it a crime to undermine Beijing's authority in Hong Kong.
An estimated 300,000 BNO passport holders in Hong Kong currently have the right to visit the UK for up to six months without a visa. These passports were issued by the UK to people in the region before the transfer of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
"In relation to BNO passport holders, currently they only have the right to come to the UK for six months," said UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
"If China continues down this path and implements this national security legislation, we will change that status. And we will remove that six-month limit and allow those BNO passport holders to come to the UK and to apply to work and study for extendable periods of 12 months and that will itself provide a pathway to future citizenship," he said.
According to reports, the proposal has the backing of Indian-origin Home Secretary Priti Patel, with details yet to be fleshed out.
Some British MPs want the UK government to go further and offer automatic citizenship to BNO holders in Hong Kong. Conservative Party MP Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said BNO holders should have an automatic right to live and work in the UK.
"We must move faster in recognising the rights of the most entrepreneurial people in Asia, and speak out for those who we know so well back in the region. We should also build partnerships that can defend the rule of law worldwide," he said.
Raab's intervention followed a strongly-worded joint statement by the UK, US, Australia and Canada condemning Beijing's proposed new law.
"China's decision to impose the new national security law on Hong Kong lies in direct conflict with its international obligations under the principles of the legally-binding, UN-registered Sino-British Joint Declaration," the joint statement said.
"As Hong Kong's stability and prosperity are jeopardised by the new imposition, we call on the government of China to work with the Hong Kong SAR Government and the people of Hong Kong to find a mutually acceptable accommodation that will honour China's international obligations under the UN-filed Sino-British Joint Declaration," it said.
China, however, has rejected foreign criticism of its new law, which has received the backing of the Chinese parliament and could be in force by next month.
Reacting to the UK government's proposal, China on Friday threatened it with reprisals.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a press briefing that China "reserves the right to take corresponding countermeasures."
Last year more than 100,000 people in Hong Kong signed a petition calling for full BNO citizenship rights.
The British government responded by saying that only UK citizens and certain Commonwealth citizens had the right of abode in the UK and cited a 2007 review, which said giving BNO holders full citizenship would be a breach of the agreement under which the UK handed Hong Kong back to China.
In 1972, the UK offered asylum to around 30,000 Ugandan Asians, mostly Indian-origin, with BNO passports after the then-military ruler Idi Amin ordered about 60,000 Asians to leave. At the time, some British MPs said India should take responsibility for the refugees, but then Prime Minister Edward Heath said the UK had a duty to accept them.