China has threatened to stop recognising the British National Overseas passports held by Hong Kong residents as valid travel documents, after the UK promised a route out of the former colony for millions of residents.
Following China’s imposition of a national security law on the territory last month, the UK offered extended visa rights and promised to “provide a pathway to future citizenship” to almost 3m Hong Kong residents eligible for a BNO passport.
China has condemned the pledge to extend visa rights, arguing that the two countries had agreed a memorandum stating that the UK would not give Hong Kong BNO passport holders right of residency.
Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, suggested on Thursday that Beijing would no longer recognise the document, which was issued to Hong Kong residents born before the handover of the territory from UK to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
“Because the UK first violated its promises, China will consider not recognising the BNO passport as a valid travel document, and will reserve the right to take further countermeasures,” Mr Wenbin said at a press conference.
The diplomatic slight is thought to affect Hong Kong residents who only hold the BNO passport, although under the territory’s usual border procedures, residents can leave the territory on a Hong Kong ID and arrive in the UK on their BNO document.
Responding to Mr Wenbin’s warning, Downing Street said: “It’s a fact that BNO passports are issued by the British government and they are legitimate international travel documents.”
Asked what the UK would do if China refused to allow people to leave Hong Kong on a BNO passport, a spokesman said: “They are legitimate international travel documents and that is how you would expect them to be treated.”
From January 2021, Hong Kong residents with BNO passport status will be granted five years’ limited leave to live and work in the UK. At the end of this period they can apply for settled status. After a further 12 months, they will be permitted to apply for British citizenship. Those eligible will also be able to apply with spouses and children under 18 who do not hold BNO citizenship.
According to internal Foreign Office estimates, about 200,000 Hong Kong citizens with BNO passports could come to live in the UK over the next five years.
The only other territory’s travel documents that China does not accept are those of Taiwan, which Beijing does not recognise as a legitimate country.
There have also been cases of Beijing refusing to recognise the foreign passports of children born in China. In some cases, it considers them to be Chinese nationals because the government does not recognise dual nationality.