Britain's foreign minister said he has spoken to "Five Eyes" allies about potentially opening their doors to Hong Kongers if Beijing's plans to impose a national security law on the city sparks an exodus.
The revelation came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson said London would not "walk away" from Hong Kongers worried by Beijing's control over the international business hub, in his most direct comments yet on the former colony's future.
Semi-autonomous Hong Kong has been rocked by months of huge and often violent pro-democracy protests over the past year.
In response Beijing has announced plans to introduce a sweeping national security law covering secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and foreign interference.
China says the law – which will bypass Hong Kong's legislature – is needed to tackle "terrorism" and "separatism" in a restless city it now regards as a direct national security threat.
But opponents, including many western nations, fear it will bring mainland-style political oppression to a business hub that was supposedly guaranteed freedoms and autonomy for 50 years after its 1997 handover to China from Britain.
Contingency plans for 'mass exodus'
In parliament on Tuesday, Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said he had reached out to Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada about contingency plans if the law creates a deluge of Hong Kongers looking to leave.
"I raised it on the Five Eyes call yesterday – the possibility of burden sharing if we see a mass exodus from Hong Kong," Raab told lawmakers, referencing the intelligence-sharing alliance between the five powers.
Britain has said it will offer millions of Hong Kongers visas and a possible route to UK citizenship if China persists with its national security law, a commitment Johnson detailed in a column for The Times and the South China Morning Post newspapers on Wednesday.
'Path to citizenship'
"Many people in Hong Kong fear their way of life – which China pledged to uphold – is under threat," Johnson wrote.
"If China proceeds to justify their fears, then Britain could not in good conscience shrug our shoulders and walk away; instead we will honour our obligations and provide an alternative."
About 350,000 people in Hong Kong currently hold British National (Overseas) passports, which allow visa-free access to Britain for up to six months.
Another 2.5 million people would be eligible to apply for one.
Johnson said Britain could allow BN(O) holders to come 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".
Beijing has hit out at foreign criticism of its national security law, saying the issue is a purely internal affair, and has vowed to implement "counter measures".
It says Hong Kongers will continue to keep their political freedoms – although anti-subversion laws are routinely used to quash political dissent on the mainland.
Britain says it views the proposed law as a breach of the 1984 agreement with Beijing ahead of the handover guaranteeing Hong Kong's freedoms and a level of autonomy – a deal that formed the bedrock of its rise as a world class finance centre.
"Britain does not seek to prevent China's rise," Johnson wrote. "It is precisely because we welcome China as a leading member of the world community that we expect it to abide by international agreements."
His comments came as political tensions are rising in Hong Kong once more.
On Wednesday lawmakers in the city's pro-Beijing weighted legislature restarted debate on a law that would criminalise insults to China's national anthem.
The bill is likely to be passed on Thursday – a day when Hong Kongers will also mark the anniversary of Beijing's 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, despite city authorities banning the traditional annual vigil because of the coronavirus.