The government of Hong Kong has asked some foreign governments not to accept special British passports that some of its citizens use for working holiday visas in Europe, North America, and parts of Asia.
According to the Reuters news agency, the Hong Kong government has sent a letter to about a dozen foreign consulates informing them that it no longer considers the British National Overseas (BNO) passport a valid travel document as of 31 January. It demanded that instead its Hong Kong passport should be used.
One senior Western diplomat, who had seen the letter, said: “Most countries are going to ignore this. It is the Hong Kong government just trying it on… they have no right to tell any state what foreign passports it can recognize.”
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.
According to a Hong Kong government website, 14 countries are under the reciprocal Working Holiday Scheme, including Australia, Britain, Japan, Germany, and Canada.
Officials in Japan, South Korea, Italy and New Zealand confirmed to Reuters that they still recognised the BNO passport for visas while South Korea’s foreign ministry said they had not received the letter.
Hungary admitted receiving the letter and said it had started talks to change the working holiday program. Several other countries including the US, Finland, and Norway, also offer similar arrangements or student exchanges for Hongkongers and have accepted BNOs from applicants.
A U.S. State Department spokesman said that the BNO remained valid for visa-issuing purposes and travel to the U.S.
The move was also criticised by many human rights activists on social media.
Benedict Rogers, who is the chief executive and founder of Hong Kong Watch, tweeted: “Outrageous and wrong. The UK must mount a counter-initiative to ensure governments don’t listen to #HongKong regime’s nonsense.”
The pro-democracy Twitter “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong” tweeted: “#BNO passports are Special British passports. What right does the Hong Kong SAR government think they have to tell any state what foreign passports it can recognize? Is this example of wolf warrior diplomacy?”
Hong Kong, a former British colony, was returned to China in 1997 with the promise that it would continue to enjoy a degree of autonomy from the mainland. This has been eroded in recent years, however, with Beijing introducing a strict national security law that focuses on ensuring the loyalty of the city’s government, leaders and citizens.
The city has witnessed pro-democracy protests since 2019, but the movement has faltered since the passage of the national security law with activists either arrested and imprisoned or forced into exile.
In January 2021, Britain introduced a new visa scheme that offered Hongkongers a new route to full UK citizenship, a move that irked Beijing. The scheme allows those with BNO status to live, study and work in Britain for five years and then eventually apply for citizenship, but China says it would make them second-class citizens.
It is estimated that almost three million residents of Hong Kong either hold or are eligible for the BNO document. The UK had said the new scheme could attract more than 300,000 people and their dependents.
Additional reporting by agencies