China has vowed not to recognize a passport the UK offers Hong Kong residents as valid identification and accused London of violating its sovereignty, after Britain offered up to 3 million of the city’s population a new path to citizenship.
Comments from the Chinese Foreign Ministry demonstrate growing friction between London and Beijing over Hong Kong as post-Brexit Britain contemplates a trade deal with the Asian superpower.
While the move is largely symbolic, as China has not previously recognized the passport as a travel document to enter the country, it reinforces Beijing’s threat to take further action against the UK.
The British government countered Beijing’s introduction of a national security law in Hong Kong in the middle of last year by offering residents of the territory a chance to settle permanently in the UK via a new visa. London viewed the law as a violation of the Sino-British treaty under which the territory returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
The pathway to citizenship was made available to those who held a British overseas national passport, historically offered to Hong Kong residents of the territory while under British sovereignty. The new BNO visa, for which applications are open on Sundays, will also be open to a wide range of dependents of people eligible for the BNO passport.
Britain’s Home Office has said it expects around 300,000 people to apply for visas in the first five years.
Zhao Lijian, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said that from January 31, Beijing will not accept the document as a valid ID because it has strongly criticized the British leadership.
“This is a serious violation of China’s sovereignty, blatant interference in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs,” Zhao said. He added that China reserves the right to take further action.
Hong Kong residents who hold a BNO passport also have a Hong Kong passport and a Hong Kong ID card, which means they will still be able to return to Hong Kong. If they wanted to travel to mainland China, they would use a “return home permit,” a separate card that allows Hong Kong people to access visa-free.
Emily Lau, a Hong Kong politician who fought for the rights of BNO holders, said China’s response was “very strange”.
“I don’t really know what the effect is,” she said, adding that Hong Kong people usually enter China with the permit issued by the government of mainland China.
“I understand that the Chinese government has never officially recognized BNO,” she said. “I think they want to thwart [British’s BNO policy], but I don’t know what difference it would make. “
A British official agreed that the impact of Mr Zhao’s statement was unclear, as Beijing had never allowed the use of BNO passports to enter China.
Dominic Raab, the British Foreign Secretary, said when announcing his intention to start accepting applications that the British authorities would “not look elsewhere” with regard to Hong Kong.
“We will live up to our historic responsibility to his people,” Mr. Raab said. “China’s imposition of the National Security Law on Hong Kong is a clear and serious violation of the Sino-British joint declaration contrary to international law.”
The terms of the UK’s new visa program are particularly generous given the UK Home Office’s cautious approach to encouraging immigration in recent years. In addition to extending it to a much wider range of dependents than most settlement routes, the visa offers a faster route to permanent settlement and citizenship than that offered to most groups and will cost cheaper.
The UK said on Friday it had already offered discretionary leave to stay in the UK to around 7,000 BNO holders and their dependents who had arrived at UK border posts since announcing its plans for the new route in July of last year.