Last year, China imposed a comprehensive national security law on Hong Kong that critics say has stripped the city of its autonomy and valuable civil and social freedoms, while strengthening Beijing’s authoritarian rule over the territory. Since then, many prominent activists and politicians have fled, while others have quietly arranged to move abroad.
The law criminalizes secession, sabotage, and collusion with foreign forces, and is punishable by life imprisonment.
According to data from the UK Home Office, CNN obtained it through a Freedom of Information request, since July 2019, when anti-government protests erupted across the city, more than 400,000 BN (O) passports have been issued to Hong Kong residents, and more. So. Of the total number released in the past fifteen years.
At the time the National Security Act was proposed, the number of passports issued jumped from 7,515 in June 2020 to more than 24,000 in July. These numbers may also be lower than the number of people applying, as the coronavirus pandemic appears to have affected passport processing last summer.
China reacted angrily to the proposed plan, claiming that it violated the agreement under which Hong Kong was handed over from British rule to Chinese rule, and which London in turn argues that the National Security Act undermines it.
At a regular Friday press conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Legian accused the UK of “ignoring the fact that Hong Kong has returned to the motherland for 24 years” and violating promises made on delivery time.
He said the BN (O) citizenship route “seriously violates China’s sovereignty, flagrantly interferes in Hong Kong’s affairs and China’s internal affairs, and seriously violates international law and the basic norms of international relations.”
Zhao said that as of January 31, China will no longer recognize BN (O) passports as travel documents or proof of identity, and “reserves the right to take further measures.”
It is not clear what the practical implications of such a move would be, however, most Hong Kong residents, be they foreigners or Chinese citizens, use locally issued identity cards for the purposes of entering or leaving the territory, as well as for most identification purposes. Many people who qualify for a BN (O) passport are also entitled to apply for a Hong Kong passport and may already have them, which can also be used for these purposes.
BN (O) passports are not fully accepted for travel to mainland China, as ethnic Chinese Hong Kong residents use a “repatriation” permit with their Hong Kong identity card or passport.
Given the limited scope of this immediate response, many suggested that further steps might be taken, especially if a large number of people leave Hong Kong in the coming months.
“After that, the Hong Kong Chinese who obtained foreign citizenship of their own free will will be deemed to have lost their Chinese nationality, in strict accordance with Article 9 of the Chinese Nationality Law,” IB said. “When they make a conscious decision to leave Hong Kong by implication, it is only right that they are asked to make their decision – China or a foreign country – foreign nationality or right of residency and the right to vote in Hong Kong.”
BN (O) holders cannot be the only people leaving. Around the time of the 1997 handover, many Hong Kong residents had acquired foreign citizenship, especially in Commonwealth countries such as Canada and Australia, both of which had generous immigration policies at the time.
In December 2020, former lawmaker Ted Howe largely fled Hong Kong, taking advantage of a fake environmental conference to release him on bail, and now seeking asylum in the UK. Nathan Law, a prominent former lawmaker and leader of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, has also sought asylum there, while others have sought protection in Germany, the United States and Australia.
Fleeing abroad does not always mean total freedom: the law and other exiles have complained of being harassed and even harassed by people they believe are agents of the Chinese government, an accusation denied by Beijing representatives. They are also restricted as to what contacts they can make with family and friends in Hong Kong, for fear of getting in trouble with the authorities.
While it is unlikely that most BN (O) holders living in the UK will be monitored in this way, the intense political environment surrounding the new plan may make it difficult to return for those who decide they do not want to remain in Britain.
Ray Wong, an activist who fled to Germany in 2017 and became one of the first Hong Kong residents to gain asylum in Europe, told CNN last year that he missed “basically everything in Hong Kong.”
“I miss being surrounded by Hong Kong people, and I’m surrounded by people who speak Cantonese,” he said. “I even miss the very unpleasant atmosphere.”
CNN’s Jenny Marsh and Angela Dewan contributed to this report.