Anti-government students gather for protests after school in Lok Fu, Hong Kong, September 23 2019. Picture: REUTERS/JORGE SILVA
Anti-government students gather for protests after school in Lok Fu, Hong Kong, September 23 2019. Picture: REUTERS/JORGE SILVA

Hong Kong — The Hong Kong government has told some foreign consulates to stop accepting a British travel document that many of its young people use to apply for working holiday visas in Europe, North America and parts of Asia, diplomats say.

In a move seen by some envoys as a diplomatic affront, the government informed about a dozen foreign consulates in a letter that it no longer considers the British National Overseas (BNO) passport a valid travel document as of January 31.

The letter demanded that its Hong Kong passport should be used instead.

A diplomatic row broke out over the BNO in January after Britain introduced a new visa scheme offering a pathway to full citizenship for Hongkongers who want to leave the Chinese-ruled territory. Britain launched the scheme after Hong Kong passed a sweeping national security law last year, that critics say is crushing dissent in the former British colony.

Almost 3-million Hong Kong residents hold or are eligible for the BNO document, that was created ahead of Britain handing the city back to Chinese rule in 1997.

Hong Kong also started to mirror mainland China by not recognising dual nationality, preventing, for the first time, foreign diplomats from visiting locals with foreign passports in detention.

“Most countries are going to ignore this,” said one senior Western diplomat who has seen the letter. “It is the Hong Kong government just trying it on ... they have no right to tell any state what foreign passports it can recognise.”

Another envoy described the move as “bordering on belligerent” and said it was not the way the Hong Kong government, generally mindful of the city’s standing as an international financial hub, has traditionally behaved.

The Hong Kong government has yet to respond to request for comment.

A Hong Kong government website lists 14 countries under the reciprocal working holiday scheme, including Japan, Canada, Germany, Britain and Australia.

Officials in Japan, South Korea, Italy and New Zealand confirmed that they still recognise the BNO passport for visas. South Korea’s foreign ministry added that it has not received the letter while Hungary said it has, and has started talks to change the working holiday programme.

Other nations, including the US, Finland and Norway, also offer similar arrangements or student exchanges for Hongkongers, and have accepted BNOs from applicants. It is not known if the US also received the letter but a state department spokesperson said that the BNO remains valid for visa-issuing purposes and travel to the US.

Hong Kong’s moves against the BNO followed an announcement from the UK government that its new visa could attract more than 300,000 people and their dependents.

London said it is fulfilling a historic and moral commitment to Hong Kong’s people in the wake of the national security law, which allows for suspects in serious cases to be taken across the border and tried in mainland Chinese courts.

Beijing and Hong Kong authorities say the legislation is necessary to bring stability to the city after anti-government protests flared up in 2019.

The UK scheme allows those with BNO status to live, study and work in Britain for five years and eventually apply for citizenship. Beijing said it would make them second-class citizens, a line propagated by pro-Beijing media commentators in Hong Kong.

Britain handed its former colony back to Chinese rule in 1997 with guarantees its core freedoms, extensive autonomy and capitalist way of life would be protected.


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