June 3 (UPI) -- Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Wednesday he will overhaul the country's visa system creating a possible path to citizenship for some 3 million Hong Kong residents if China implements its new national security law.
In an op-ed published Wednesday in the South China Morning Post and The Times of London, Johnson said Britain was prepared to offer Hong Kong residents eligible for a British National (Overseas) passport a 12-month renewable visa to relocate to the European nation to work, live and study, "which could place them on a route to citizenship."
The current visa system allots such passport holders six months of visa-free access to Britain.
"This would amount to one of the biggest changes in our visa system in British history," he said. "If it proves necessary, the British government will take this step and take it willingly."
China has attracted widespread international condemnation urging it not to impose a law its rubber-stamp National People's Congress approved late last month to criminalize acts of secession, sedition, subversion, terrorism and conspiring with foreign actors to threaten national security in Hong Kong.
Critics see the law as all but spelling the end of Hong Kong's autonomy from China, which it was promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration that returned the region from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
The national law was tabled nearly a year after protests erupted on the island over a now-withdrawn extradition law. However, the protests grew to encompass larger pro-democracy demands following accusations of police brutality perpetrated against protesters.
The island's political leader, Carrie Lam, in an attempt to assuage worries about the law, has said it will clog legal loopholes, safeguard the "One Country, Two Systems" governmental framework Hong Kong functions under and only target "an extremely small minority of criminals."
Johnson wrote in the op-ed that the law is in direct conflict with the U.N.-registered treaty it signed with Britain for the island's return to Chinese rule, and if it goes through with its imposition, Britain will not stand idly by.
"Britain would then have no choice but to uphold our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong," he said.
China has repeatedly accused nations of meddling in its internal affairs for voicing criticism against its handling of Hong Kong, going so far as to charge some with stoking the protests. Johnson wrote he hoped China wouldn't make such "false allegations" and work with them to "preserve everything that has allowed Hong Kong to thrive."
In response, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said during a regular press conference Friday that "China reserves the right to take corresponding measures."