Britain decided to grant visa-free access to Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) passport holders after the 1997 handover, partly because it feared not doing sowould spark retaliation from Beijing. Newly declassified files show the British government was concerned its citizens would end up needing a visa to enter Hong Kong. More than 6,000 police officers to be deployed to handle Hong Kong new year events The warning was sounded by Home Secretary Michael Howard, and Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, during a cabinet meeting on February 27, 1996. Howard said if visas were required it would harm confidence in the future of Hong Kong, while Rifkind pointed out that 1.2 billion people around the world already had visa-free access to Britain at the time. “If a visa requirement had been imposed, it was very likely that the Chinese government would have retaliated by requiring visas of British visitors to Hong Kong, including the half million business visitors each year,” Rifkind is quoted as saying by the minutes of the cabinet meeting. The two ministers concluded that on balance the better course would be not to require HKSAR passports to obtain visas for entry to Britain, but instead to keep the position under review and be ready to impose a requirement if circumstances demanded. The records were declassified by Britain’s National Archives in London this week for public inspection. It was reported by Hong Kong mediain the mid-1990s that Britain’s Home Office had deep reservations about granting visa-free access to HKSAR passport holders. It was worried that SAR passports would be issued to large number of Hong Kong residents who possessed only a Certificate of Identity, a travel document for Hong Kong residents without British nationality, and so required a visa to enter Britain. During his visit to Hong Kong in March 1996, then British Prime Minister John Major announced the decision to grant an estimated 5.4 million holders of HKSAR passports visa-free status after July 1, 1997. He described it as “an offer made in good faith”. Since 1997, British citizens can enter Hong Kong for a period of up to 180 days without a visa. In a letter to Edward Oakden, private Secretary to Major, on January 18, 1996, S J Sharpe, Rifkind’s private secretary, highlighted the merit of the announcement during Major’s visit. “Although people in Hong Kong often tend to blame visiting British ministers for failure to secure more from China, particularly on the future of representative government and human rights safeguards, an announcement by the prime minister on visa-free access would be a big news story for Hong Kong,” Sharpe wrote. “It would overshadow any difficult questioning on other issues and ensure a successful visit.” Ahead of Major’s trip, Martin Lee Chu-ming, who was chairman of the Democratic Party at the time, bet £50 that Britain would not grant visa-free access to holders of British passports. “I made the bet with Rifkind in the hope of giving the British Government some incentive to do the right thing for Hongkongers,” he said. Rifkind later donated his winnings to the Hong Kong Community Chest.