China Derecognizes BNO Passports as UK Launches Hong Kong Visa Scheme

2021-01-29
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China Derecognizes BNO Passports as UK Launches Hong Kong Visa Scheme A British National Overseas (BNO) passport, now banned for use by Chinese authorities in Hong Kong, is shown in a file photo.
AFP

As the U.K. geared up to launch a new pathway to citizenship for Hong Kong residents amid an ongoing crackdown on public dissent, China said on Friday it will no longer recognize British National Overseas (BNO) passports that are the key to the scheme.

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the move was Beijing's response to "the British side’s attempt to turn a large number of Hong Kong people into second-class British citizens."

"This move 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," Zhao told a regular news briefing.

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

China's announcement came after the U.K. said a new visa would be available for BNO passport holders, who could potentially number around three million, from Sunday.

"The commitment was made following the Chinese government’s imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong last year, in breach of its commitments under international law," the foreign office said in a statement on its website.

Once dismissed by many in Hong Kong as not worth the hassle of applying for, the BNO passport will enable millions of people to live, study, and work in the U.K., with a path to permanent residency after five years and to citizenship after six.

But the Hong Kong government announced on Friday that the document would no longer be accepted in Hong Kong for immigration clearance, nor for identification purposes, forcing residents to present their smart ID cards or China's Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) Passport.

From Sunday, BNO passports won't be accepted for the purposes of entering or leaving Hong Kong, with residents required to present an alternative document.

Hong Kong permanent residents who are not of Chinese nationality and hold no other valid travel document can apply to the immigration authorities for a document of identity for visa purposes, the Hong Kong government said in a statement.

"The current move of the British side has substantively changed the nature of the BNO passport ... [and] it is legitimate for our country to take countermeasures in response," the statement said.

"The hypocrisy of the British government is also revealed by its lack of intent to confer the right of abode in the U.K. on people in Hong Kong as reflected in various amendments in its laws or policies long before Hong Kong's return to China."

"While the U.K. may be in dire need of talents and capital, it should not have made use of the BNO passport as a political cover-up," the statement said.

'Immensely proud'

British prime minister Boris Johnson said he was "immensely proud" of the move, saying the U.K. had "stood up for freedom and autonomy," while foreign secretary Dominic Raab said the U.K. wouldn't look the other way amid an ongoing crackdown on political opposition and public dissent.

"China’s imposition of the National Security Law for Hong Kong constitutes a clear and serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration contrary to international law," Raab said, in a reference to the 1984 treaty governing the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China.

Holders of biometric passports will be able to scan them via a smartphone app, and apply without visiting a visa office.

The U.K. has already granted leave to enter the country to some 7,000 BNO passport holders and their dependents, and will continue to do so until the new visa scheme goes fully digital.

As many as 5.4 million Hong Kong residents could be eligible for the plan, including an estimated three million passport holders and just over two million dependents: around 72 percent of the city's population.

The U.K. changed the rules in response to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s imposition of the draconian National Security Law for Hong Kong, which bans words or deeds deemed to be secessionist, subversive, or involving terrorism or collusion with foreign powers.

The law, which was imposed by decree, bypassing the city's Legislative Council (LegCo), criminalizes anyone holding a protest banner or speaking out against the loss of Hong Kong's promised freedoms, anywhere in the world.

Hundreds of people lined up in Hong Kong to apply for BNO passports ahead of the 1997 handover to Chinese rule, and similar scenes were replayed ahead of the national security law.

Anonymous cell phones

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong authorities said they would clamp down on anonymous cell phones in the city, requiring anyone buying a SIM card to provide their real name and ID.

"The anonymous nature of such services undermines people's confidence in the integrity of telecommunications services, jeopardizes genuine and legitimate use of such services and creates obstacles for law enforcement," the government said in a statement launching a consultation exercise ahead of the move.

Commentators said the move was unlikely to be effective in clamping down on phone-based fraud, but that such a system would be vulnerable to abuse by law enforcement agencies, who could request people's personal details from service providers, citing "serious crimes" under the national security law.

Francis Fong, honorary president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation, said some kind of biometric identification would be necessary to make such a system effective.

Such a system could hit the telecoms industry by having a chilling effect on sales, as well as depriving people of freedom of communication, Fong told RFA.

Chinese freedom of speech activist Zhou Shuguang said the move replicates one of the key planks in the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) clampdown on free speech in mainland China, suggesting Beijing is getting ready to bring Hong Kong within the Great Firewall of government internet censorship.

"Now that Hong Kong has gradually lost what democracy and freedom it enjoyed, it is getting closer to full-on information control from the Chinese government," Zhou said.

"As well as setting up the Great Firewall [in Hong Kong], it will need to control mobile phone card users to stop anonymous online activity," he said. "This is another small step towards totalitarian rule in Hong Kong."

Reported by Gigi Lee for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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