BNO and SAR passports. Photo: Asia Times

HONG KONG – The Chinese government said it would stop recognizing the British National (Overseas) passport as a travel and identity document for Hong Kong people from Sunday and reserve the right to take further measures against the United Kingdom citizenship scheme.

“The UK government attempted to turn a large amount of Hong Kong people into second-class British citizens and completely changed the BNO’s nature understood by China and Britain,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, said at a regular media briefing on Friday.

The change in BNO status seriously violated China’s sovereignty, wantonly intervened in Hong Kong’s matters and China’s internal affairs and seriously violated international law and the basic principles of international relations, Zhao said. China expressed strong indignation and firm opposition to the UK’s move, he added.

The announcement was made in response to a British government move, which will open a new visa for Hong Kong BNO status holders on Sunday.

The British government said BNO passport holders and eligible family members will be able to move to the UK to live, study and work. After five years in the UK, they will be able to apply for settlement, followed by British citizenship after a further 12 months.

People can apply online from 5pm on Sunday and would have to visit a visa application center, or they could apply with their smartphones from February 23.

“I am immensely proud that we have brought in this new route for Hong Kong BNOs to live, work and make their home in our country,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a press release.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures as he holds a remote press conference to update the nation on the post-Brexit trade agreement, inside 10 Downing Street. Photo: AFP

“In doing so we have honored 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.”

“We have been clear we won’t look the other way when it comes to Hong Kong. We will live up to our historic responsibility to its people,” said Dominic Raab, the UK’s Foreign Secretary. “China’s imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong constitutes a clear and serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration contrary to international law.”

From July 15, 2020, to January 13, 2021, about 7,000 BNO status holders and their dependents were granted Leave Outside the Rules at the border of the UK.

The UK’s Home Office forecast that about 123,000 to 153,700 Hong Kong people would move to Britain in the first year under the BNO citizenship scheme. It said a total of 258,000 to 322,400 people, or more than one million people in an extreme case scenario, would join the scheme within five years.

The BNO citizenship scheme would result in a capital outflow of HK$280 billion (US$36.1 billion) from Hong Kong this year, according to a research report published by BofA Securities. Such an amount was equivalent to half of the capital inflow to the territory in 2020, it said.

In the coming five years, a total of HK$588 billion would leave Hong Kong due to the scheme, excluding the cash that would be taken away by other emigrants, it said.

Since last July, the Chinese government has vowed to retaliate against the UK’s move to grant citizenships to BNO status holders. Some pro-Beijing newspapers suggested Beijing strip the Chinese nationalities and Hong Kong permanent residencies of those who were granted the Britain nationality under the scheme.

These people will then lose their rights to vote, to enjoy low-cost medical and education services and will not be able to apply for public housing.

Although the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress did not discuss the issue in a special meeting last week, it will probably handle the issue later.

Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, a Hong Kong lawmaker and a member of the Basic Law Committee, said Friday that it was possible that those who moved to the UK under the BNO citizenship scheme would lose their Chinese nationality and Hong Kong permanent residency.

Leung added that Beijing would still allow Hong Kong’s permanent residents to hold passports issued by other countries.

A protester holds the old British-Hong Kong flag during a lunchtime event in Admiralty, Hong Kong, on June 12, 2020. Photo: AFP

Chau Sze-tat, a political commentator and popular YouTuber, said those who had planned to leave Hong Kong for the UK would not be deterred by Beijing’s retaliation.

Chau said some of these people even hoped to be stripped of their Chinese nationality as early as possible so they might be granted British nationality earlier.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in an interview with CNBC that not many would choose to go to the UK, especially as the British medical system had been overloaded by Covid-19 patients.

Bernard Chan, the Convenor of the Executive Council, also said the number of people who would move to Britain would be far less than the forecast of one million people. He added that the outgoing population would be easily replenished by new immigrants from the mainland.

Read: HK backs Beijing on British passport retaliation

Read: Retaliation urged to stem Hong Kong exodus