Beijing Derecognizes Hong Kongers’ British National (Overseas) Passports

By Alexander Zhang
Alexander Zhang
Alexander Zhang
January 29, 2021Updated: January 29, 2021

The Chinese regime said on Friday it will stop recognizing British National (Overseas) passports as travel and identity documents in response to Britain’s offer of a pathway to citizenship to millions of Hong Kong residents.

This came just hours after the British government announced that a special new visa will be opened for Hong Kong BN(O) status holders on Sunday.

The scheme, first announced last July after Beijing’s imposition of a draconian national security law for Hong Kong, allows BN(O) status holders to live, study, and work in the UK for five years and eventually apply for citizenship.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the weekly question time debate in Parliament in London on July 1, 2020. (Parliament TV/Reuters TV via Reuters)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “immensely proud” of having introduced the new scheme.

“In doing so we have honoured our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong, and we have stood up for freedom and autonomy—values both the UK and Hong Kong hold dear,” he said in a statement.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian blasted the British scheme, saying it “seriously infringes on China’s sovereignty, grossly interferes in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs, and seriously violates international law and the basic norms of international relations.”

Riot police detain a man as they clear protesters taking part in a rally against a new national security law in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020. (Dale de la Rey/AFP via Getty Images)

“The British side’s attempt to turn a large number of Hong Kong people into second-class British citizens has completely changed the nature of the two sides’ original understanding of BN(O),” Zhao said at a routine press briefing on Friday.

“China will no longer recognize the so-called BN(O) passport as a travel document and proof of identity starting from Jan. 31, and reserves the right to take further measures,” he said.

Despite the harsh rhetoric, it is not clear what impact, if any, Beijing’s new move will have on Hongkongers’ ability to travel or relocate.

Applicants for the new visa do not have to hold a BN(O) passport. They can apply as long as the UK Home Office confirms their status by checking their records.

From Feb. 23, applicants will not even need to visit a visa application center, and will be able to apply from home with a smartphone app.

“BN(O) status holders and their eligible family members who hold a biometric BN(O), Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, or European Economic Area (EEA) passport can scan their passport on the app and complete their application from home,” the UK government said on Friday.

Hong Kong Watch, an NGO led by British human rights activist Benedict Rogers, said Beijing’s move is “alarming” but also “appears largely symbolic.”

But the organization urged the UK government to be “ready to introduce counter measures to ensure Hong Kongers are freely able to leave the city and take up BNO and other lifeboat policies if there are substantive restrictions placed on freedom of movement.”

The national security law, which went into effect on June 30, 2020, criminalizes individuals for any acts of subversion, secession, and collusion with foreign forces against the Chinese Communist Party, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Johnson made the visa offer to Hong Kong residents on July 1, after declaring the law “constitutes a clear and serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration” as it “violates Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and is in direct conflict with Hong Kong basic law”.

“We have been clear we won’t look the other way when it comes to Hong Kong,” Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Friday. “We will live up to our historic responsibility to its people.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.