On Thursday, China threatened to stop recognizing the British National Overseas (BNO) passports held by Hong Kongers born before 1997 as the United Kingdom unveils new details of a generous citizenship offer that could apply to up to three million Hong Kongers.
British Home Secretary Priti Patel announced on Wednesday that from January 2021, those in Hong Kong with BNO (sometimes stylized as BN(O)) status would be able to apply for special visas for extendible five-year stays in the UK, which would eventually make them eligible to apply for citizenship.
This offer first announced in early June was made official following Beijing’s imposition of a contentious national security law on Hong Kong. The sweeping law criminalizes all acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. However, the vague wording of the legislation and severe punishments it metes out have many Hong Kongers fearing for their safety and ongoing freedom in the city.
“My offer to BN(O) citizens is a very generous one,” said Patel. “I welcome warmly all those who decide to take it.”
The UK government will not impose skills tests, minimum income requirements, economic needs tests or place caps on intake numbers for Hong Kongers wishing to relocate. There is also no need for applicants to have secured a job in the UK prior to their arrival.
“At the same time, it is not an unconditional offer,” Patel said, pointing out that despite the lenient entry requirements, all applicants will need to be self-sufficient in the first five to seven years of their stay before they obtain British citizenship. They will also not have access to social security.
She also took the time to address the concerns of those in Britain who may oppose the mass immigration, saying that “BN(O) citizens in Hong Kong are in a unique position … It will not set a precedent.”
China reacts to announcement
Her announcement prompted anger from China, which has previously warned of “corresponding measures” if foreign countries continue to meddle in its affairs.
“In disregard of China’s solemn representations, the UK went ahead with its political manipulation over the BN(O) passport issue, openly breaking its commitment as well as international law and basic norms governing international relations,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin at a press briefing on Thursday, referring to the British commitments made under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.
“Given that the British side broke its commitment first, the Chinese side will consider stopping recognizing BN(O) passports as valid travel documents and reserves the right to take further actions,” Wang added.
The 1984 declaration underscored the handover process from the British to China, and laid the groundwork for the one country, two systems principle. By signing this document, the British government had pledged not to interfere with the right of abode of BN(O) holders residing in Hong Kong.
UK officials and other critics of China have repeatedly said that China has breached its own promises under the declaration to ensure that Hong Kong will operate with a high degree of autonomy. In response to such claims, Beijing had called the treaty “outdated.”
However, experts in immigration said that Beijing’s response was largely symbolic and did not have the deterrent impact that it was intended to.
Even before the UK announced the details of their offer, China did not recognize BNO passports as a valid travel document for entry into the mainland. Hong Kong BNO residents were instead required to apply for a separate visa granted by the Chinese government.
When asked whether the invalidation of the BN(O) passports would affect the ability of those passport holders to leave or enter Hong Kong, Wang vaguely responded, “The implication is self-evident and not hard to fathom.”
Former Hong Kong secretary for security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee suggested that the Immigration Department may instruct flight companies to stop ticket sales to BN(O) passport holders.
Shortly after Wang’s press conference, spokespersons from Downing Street asserted the legitimacy of the BN(O) passports, saying “It’s a fact that BNO passports are issued by the British government and they are legitimate international travel documents … that is how you would expect them to be treated.”
Andrew Lo, the chief executive of a Hong Kong immigration consultancy firm, also said that Beijing’s threat had little impact on those wishing to move to Britain.
“As long as the UK and other governments still recognise BN(O), the impact of Beijing’s statement will be small in reality,” he indicated.
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