HONG KONG (Reuters) – 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 work and 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 a dozen foreign consulates in a letter that it no longer considered the British National Overseas (BNO) passport a valid travel document as of January 31.
The letter, seen by Reuters, demanded that his Hong Kong passport be used instead.
A diplomatic dispute over the BNO broke out in January after Britain introduced a new visa scheme that offers a path to full citizenship for Hong Kong residents who wish to leave China-ruled territory.
Britain launched the plan after Hong Kong passed a comprehensive national security law last year, which critics say is crushing dissent in the former British colony.
Nearly 3 million Hong Kong residents have or are eligible for the BNO document, which was created before Britain returned the city to Chinese rule in 1997.
Hong Kong also began to mirror mainland China by failing to recognize dual citizenship, preventing foreign diplomats from visiting locals with detained foreign passports for the first time.
“Most countries are going to ignore this,” said a senior Western diplomat who had seen the letter.
“It is the Hong Kong government just testing itself … they have no right to tell any state which foreign passports it can recognize.”
Another envoy described the move as “almost belligerent” and said it was not the way that the Hong Kong government, generally aware of the city’s position as an international financial center, has traditionally behaved.
The Hong Kong government has yet to respond to Reuters’ request for comment.
A Hong Kong government website lists 14 countries under the Reciprocal Vacation and Work Plan, including Japan, Canada, Germany, Great Britain and Australia.
Officials from Japan, South Korea, Italy and New Zealand confirmed to Reuters that they still recognized the BNO passport for visas. South Korea’s Foreign Ministry added that it had not received the letter, while Hungary said it had, and that it had started talks to change the work vacation schedule.
Other nations, including the United States, Finland, and Norway, also offer similar arrangements or student exchanges for Hong Kongers and have accepted BNOs from applicants.
It is not known whether the United States also received the letter, but a State Department spokesman told Reuters that the BNO remained valid for purposes of issuing visas and travel to the United States.
Hong Kong’s actions against the BNO followed an announcement by the UK government that its new visa could attract more than 300,000 people and their dependents.
London said it was fulfilling a historic and moral commitment to the Hong Kong people in the wake of the national security law, which allows suspects in serious cases to be brought across the border and tried in mainland Chinese courts.
Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong say the legislation is necessary to bring stability to the city after anti-government protests broke out in 2019.
The UK scheme allows people 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 returned its former colony to Chinese rule in 1997 with guarantees that its fundamental freedoms, extensive autonomy and a capitalist way of life would be protected.
Information from Greg Torode and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong, additional information from Krisztina Than in Hungary, Antoni Slodkowski in Tokyo, Hyonhee Shin in South Korea, Praveen Menon in New Zealand and Crispian Balmer in Italy; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore