The Chinese government said on Friday that the UK could face retaliation if Hong Kongers are offered an eased route to British citizenship following a new national security law introduced by Beijing on the Chinese territory.
Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China “reserves the right to take corresponding countermeasures” during a press briefing, AFP reports.
No specific threats were made but it comes as China imposes trade tariffs on Australian barley and beef imports as relations between the two countries begin to sour.
The foreign minister's comments follow a statement from his UK counterpart Dominic Raab who suggested that Britain may seek to relax residency directives for people in Hong Kong who hold of 'British National Overseas' (BNO) passports.
"In relation to BNO passport holders, as you know, currently they only have the right to come to the UK for six months. If China continues down this path and implements this national security legislation, we will change that status," he said.
"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 added.
China's proposed national security law for Hong Kong is in direct conflict with its obligations under the Joint Declaration. If enacted, this law would violate Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms. UK and 🇺🇸🇦🇺🇨🇦 are deeply concerned.— Dominic Raab (@DominicRaab) May 28, 2020
His comments were echoed by Home Secretary Priti Patel who later said in a tweet that she was "deeply concerned" about the new national security legislation and would "explore" a pathway to UK citizenship for Hong Kongers.
The offer received cross-party support with Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy saying in a statement that it was "an important first step" in fulfilling our "longstanding obligation" to the people of Hong Kong.
She said that it also reflects the seriousness of "the threat posed by China's approval of new national security legislation earlier today".
What is the National Security Law?
The sweeping legislation, which was signed into law by the Chinese government on Thursday, reinforces the 1 country 2 systems arrangement, forbids secession, sedition, subversion of state power, terrorism, foreign meddling, and gives China's state security agencies the power to work in the Special Administrative Region.
Opposition campaigners have claimed that the law is being introduced suddenly in order to quell anti-government protests and dissent in Hong Kong and the United States has accused China of "violating" its commitment to Hong Kong's autonomous status.
However, China has stressed that due to Hong Kong's status as part of China, the legislation is an internal matter. The government has also highlighted clauses within the formal handover agreement between the UK and China in 1997 when Hong Kong ceased its status as a British colony and reunified with the mainland.
Article 23 of the Basic Law states that Hong Kong shall enact laws "to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government (CPG)", theft of state secrets, and political organisations tied to foreign governments.
The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which has the stated goal of "promoting democracy" abroad and receives funding from the US Congress, has given grants and financial support to organisations such as the Washington-based Solidarity Center and the Hong Kong Justice Center
According to the NED website, the organisation provided grants of $155,000 and $90,000 to both bodies respectively in 2018.
China maintains a position of resolute opposition to separatism. Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 after the British government's 99-year lease of the Chinese territory after the fallout of the Opium Wars in the late 1800s.