Nearly three million Hong Kong residents have been offered the chance to settle in the UK and ultimately become citizens after Boris Johnson accused China of breaching its obligations to Britain’s former colony.
There were clashes on the streets of Hong Kong after China introduced sweeping new laws ahead of an annual pro-democracy protest.
The prime minister denounced the legislation, saying it threatened the “freedoms and rights” of the people of Hong Kong.
China’s actions were also a breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration agreed in advance of the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, he said.
In response, the government announced that it had opened with immediate effect a new path to UK citizenship for those with British National (Overseas) status, a total of about 2.9 million people.
Downing Street later said Britain would continue to have a constructive relationship with Chinese companies, but warned Beijing its relationship with the UK “does not come at any price”.
Under the new route, those with BNO status will be given five years limited leave to remain in the UK, with a right to work or study.
After five years they will be able to apply for settled status and after a further 12 months to apply for citizenship.
Announcing the move in the Commons, the foreign secretary Dominic Raab warned China was not “living up to its promises” on the freedom to peacefully protest in Hong Kong.
He added: “We fought very hard and we negotiated with the Chinese back in the 1980s to have the freedom for peaceful protest and freedom of expression to be respected.
“China through this national security legislation is not living up to its promises to the people of Hong Kong. We will live up to our promises to them.”
But the government also came under pressure from senior Tories over its controversial decision to allow Chinese company Huawei to supply technology to the UK’s 5G network.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory leader, said it was time to hit China “in the place China worries about, its economy”.
In Hong Kong, hundreds of people were arrested as police fired water, tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators who decided to protest despite being denied permission for an annual march marking the anniversary of the city’s handover to China.
The last British governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten, described the legislation as “Orwellian stuff”, saying it went “wider and further than anybody had feared”. Lisa Nandy, shadow foreign secretary, described the new laws as “deeply shocking”.
But she also accused ministers of appearing “confused” on China and expressed fears the government saw the country as key to the UK’s economic recovery.
Asked what the implications will be for Huawei’s involvement in the 5G network, Mr Raab pointed to a review already under way by the National Centre for Cyber Security.
“We will await an outcome of that review,” he said.
The home secretary is expected to set out further details of the new BNO scheme to MPs at a later date.