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in-focus

China to stop recognizing special U.K. passports for Hong Kongers as Britain opens door


TAIPEI, Taiwan - China on Friday accused Britain of turning Hong Kong residents into "second-rate" citizens as the country prepares to welcome tens of thousands of people fleeing Beijing's crackdown in the Asian financial center.

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In a gesture set to inflame tensions between China and the U.K., Beijing said that starting on Sunday it would no longer recognize British National (Overseas), or BN(O) passports - a type of British nationality granted to residents of the former colony born before its 1997 handover to Chinese control.

The U.K. on Sunday begins accepting applications for a program that expands the rights of BN(O) holders, allowing them and their families to live and work in Britain and eventually seek citizenship. Some 5.4 million of Hong Kong's 7.5 million people are eligible, raising the prospect of a mass exodus.

Britain moved to open its doors after China imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong, sharply curtailing political rights, which London said was a clear breach of the handover agreement. Human rights advocates say authorities are using the new powers to target democracy activists and government critics.

On Friday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was "immensely proud" of his country's "commitment to the people of Hong Kong."

"We have stood up for freedom and autonomy - values both the U.K. and Hong Kong hold dear," he said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian responded by saying China would no longer recognize the BN(O) as a travel document or proof of identification - a step it has been threatening for months. Criticizing the U.K. for "disregarding the fact that Hong Kong has been returned to China for 24 years," Zhao said Beijing reserved the right to take further action.

"The U.K. is plotting to turn a large number of Hong Kong people into second-rate U.K. citizens," he said, accusing Johnson's government of "violently" interfering in China's affairs.

While the comments were among China's harshest against Britain, it was unclear how much effect the change would have or whether it could be used to stop Hong Kong residents from fleeing. Residents can leave Hong Kong with a government-issued identity card or Hong Kong passport and later use the BN(O) document to enter the U.K.

Activists helping Hong Kongers settle in Britain saw Beijing's move as largely symbolic, noting that it would be difficult for Chinese authorities to know who had settled in the U.K. through the BN(O) program.

"Not recognizing the BN(O) as a valid travel document is the mildest action Beijing can take, so it is well expected and even a relief," said Simon Cheng, who was granted asylum in the U.K. last year and now helps newly arrived Hong Kongers with immigration advice, legal aid and other assistance. Cheng, a former British consulate worker, was snatched and detained in China during a business trip there in 2019, and said he was tortured.

China promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and pledged to preserve the city's way of life, including a measure of freedom, for 50 years after the handover. But its tightening control of the city, especially after anti-government protests in 2019, has prompted widespread alarm.

Further measures by Beijing could be a concern. Rights groups say Chinese authorities have previously used travel documents as a way to control or pressure citizens it deems troublesome, by confiscating passports or preventing dissidents, as well as Tibetans, Uighurs and other minorities from obtaining passports.

In the months since Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong, residents have sought ways to escape the city.

Britain's BN(O) offer has been of particular focus. ​Since July 15 last year, some 7, 000 Hong Kong people have resettled in the U.K., which granted them special permission to stay even though the BN(O) program doesn't take effect until this weekend. Others have also arrived in the U.K. hoping to seek residency through asylum.

In October, the British government estimated that between 123,000 and 153,700 BN(O) passport holders and their dependents could arrive in the first year of the migration offer, and up to 320,000 over five years. Civil society groups say that estimate is conservative, and expect up to 600,000 Hong Kongers to relocate to the U.K.

Activists say Hong Kong authorities could impose further controls, such as pressuring airlines not to recognize the special passports or even restricting dual nationality.

"The worst-case scenario would definitely be the Chinese government urging all Hong Kong [people] to renounce the BN(O) otherwise there will be consequences," said Nathan Law, an activist who left Hong Kong for Britain. "This is something we ultimately worry about."

Published : January 29, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Lily Kuo, Shibani Mahtani