China on Friday said it will “no longer recognize” the British National (Overseas) passport for Hong Kongers, as Britain prepares to offer millions of former colonial subjects a way to escape Beijing’s crackdown on dissent.
From Sunday, those with a BN(O) passport and their dependents will be able to apply online for a visa allowing them to live and work in the United Kingdom. After five years they can then apply for citizenship.
The new immigration scheme is a response to Beijing’s decision to impose a sweeping national security law on the city last year to snuff out huge and often violent democracy protests.
Britain accused China of tearing up its promise ahead of Hong Kong’s 1997 handover that the financial hub would maintain key liberties and autonomy for 50 years. It argues it has a moral duty to protect its former subjects.
But on Friday Beijing hit back ahead of the upcoming change.
“From January 31, China will no longer recognize the so-called BN(O) passport as a travel document and ID document, and reserves the right to take further actions,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters.
It is unclear what China’s declaration means in practical terms.
But it sets the stage for further confrontation with London, and the threat of further action suggests Beijing may be preparing more restrictions for BN(O) holders down the line.
Chinese officials warned last year that they might consider ending recognition of BN(O) passports. At the time they said it would mean BN(O) holders being unable to travel to the Chinese mainland.
However, it is unclear whether Chinese authorities would know who holds the document.
Hong Kongers use their own Hong Kong passport or ID card to leave the city. To enter mainland China, they need to use their Hong Kong passport or a mainland travel permit.
The only time they might use a BN(O) passport is on arrival into Britain or another country that recognizes the document.
“It’s a strong message sent to the UK and other countries not to interfere into Hong Kong affairs, but in practical terms, I don’t think people would be intimidated into not applying,” Willie Lam, an expert at Hong Kong’s Centre for China Studies, told AFP.
“There seems to be no way that the Hong Kong or Beijing authorities can find out who might or might not apply for the BN(O) passport because the British Consulate would not reveal their identity,” he added.