By Yew Lun Tian and William James
BEIJING/LONDON (Reuters) – Hong Kong residents can apply from Sunday for a new visa giving them the chance to become British citizens following China’s crackdown in the former colony, but Beijing said it will no longer recognize the special British passport already in use.
UK government forecasts say the new visa could attract more than 300,000 people and their dependents to Britain. Beijing said it would make them second-class citizens.
Britain and China have been arguing for months about what London and Washington say is an attempt to silence dissent in Hong Kong after huge pro-democracy protests in 2019 and 2020.
Britain says it is fulfilling a historic and moral commitment to the people of Hong Kong after Beijing imposed a new security law on the semi-autonomous city that Britain says breaches the terms of agreements under which the colony was handed back to China in 1997.
“I am immensely proud that we have brought in this new route for Hong Kong BN(O)s to live, work and make their home in our country,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, referring to a special British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders.
But China and the Hong Kong government hit back by saying they would no longer recognize the BNO passport as a valid travel document from Sunday, Jan. 31.
“Britain is trying to turn large numbers of Hong Kong people into second-class British citizens. This has completely changed the original nature of BNO,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a briefing.
Beijing’s imposition of a national security law in Hong Kong in June last year prompted Britain to offer refuge to almost 3 million Hong Kong residents eligible for the BNO passport from Jan. 31.
The scheme, first announced last year, opens on Sunday and allows those with British National (Overseas) status to live, study and work in Britain for five years and eventually apply for citizenship.
BN(O) is a special status created under British law in 1987 that specifically relates to Hong Kong.
Britain’s foreign ministry said it was disappointed but not surprised by Beijing’s decision not to recognize the BNO passport. China’s move is largely symbolic as Hong Kong residents would not normally use their BNO passports to travel to the mainland. A BNO passport holder in Hong Kong could still use their Hong Kong passport or identity card.
The 250 pound ($340) visa could attract more than 300,000 people and their dependents to Britain and generate up to 2.9 billion pounds of net benefit to the British economy over the next five years, according to government forecasts.
It is still highly uncertain how many people will actually take up the offer.
China says the West’s views on its actions over Hong Kong are clouded by misinformation and an imperial hangover.
(Reporting by Yew Lun Tian and William James; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Angus MacSwan)