Hong Kong’s holders of British National Overseas passports will be forced to choose between Chinese and British nationality as Beijing considers changing its citizenship law.
On July 22, the UK announced a policy change granting BNO passport holders the right to apply for settled status and then for citizenship in their sixth year after moving to Britain. The decision was in response to Beijing applying the National Security Law for Hong Kong in June. The UK scheme will kick off in early 2021.
China’s Foreign Ministry criticised the UK government for making the decision unilaterally. It said it would consider excluding the BNO passport as a travel document for Hong Kong people.
Some Hong Kong commentators said the ban on BNO passports as a travel document would not affect Hong Kong people, who could use their special administrative region passports or ID cards to go overseas and their mainland travel permits to go to the mainland. Some joked that China’s move seemed like “forbidding a blind person to use a torch.”
However, according to two pro-Beijing heavyweights, Beijing is planning to strip the Chinese citizenships of Hong Kong people who continue to hold BNO passports.
Tian Feilong, an associate professor at Beihang University’s Law School in Beijing and a director of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said the standing committee of National People’s Congress would re-interpret Article 24 of the Basic Law if the UK pushes forward with its plan.
BNO passport holders must choose between Chinese and UK nationality because China does not recognize dual nationality for any Chinese national, Tian said. Those who are given British citizenship would automatically lose their Chinese nationality and permanent residency and benefits in Hong Kong.
Tian added that Beijing would only target BNO holders in this change of the citizenship law instead of all those who hold passports issued by countries such as Canada and Australia, which don’t drain Hong Kong’s talent and capital.
Tam Yiu-chung, the sole representative from Hong Kong on China’s National People’s Congress standing committee, said Beijing would not change its citizenship law if the UK gives up its plan to grant citizenships to BNO holders. Tam said the NPC standing committee could easily make the change by issuing an explanation of China’s Nationality Law.
In May 1996, the NPC standing committee made an explanation about China’s Nationality Law concerning its implementation in Hong Kong. It said from July 1, 1997, Hong Kong people could continue to use the British Dependent Territories Citizens or BNO passports as travel documents but they would not be entitled to British consular protection in Hong Kong and mainland China.
Over the past 23 years, many Hong Kong people have held SAR and foreign passports without being treated by Beijing as having dual nationalities. However, non-Chinese people must give up their foreign passports when they apply for SAR passports.
Beijing’s possible change in China’s Nationality Law would mainly affect those who will stay in Hong Kong and keep their BNO passports as “lifeboats,” said political commentator Ng Chi-sum. A majority of these people, who had been indecisive about migrating, would become more determined to move to the UK and not look back, Ng said.
Those who had decided to move to the UK would applaud the change because they would not have to spend time giving up their Chinese nationalities, he said.
Some BNO passport holders said that if they lost their Chinese nationality and permanent residency, they hoped they could be granted British citizenships directly under section 4B of the British Nationality Act 1981.
However, some netizens warned that the possible change in China’s Nationality Law could threaten those who secretly kept their BNO passports in Hong Kong. They said the Hong Kong government could force people to disclose whether they were holding BNO passports when they applied for public services or when entering and leaving the territory.