- The UK government on Sunday opened visa applications for Hongkongers with British National Overseas passports.
- China on Friday said it would stop recognizing the passports as valid travel documents.
- “We will live up to our historic responsibility,” said Dominic Raab, foreign secretary.
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The UK government on Sunday opened applications for new visas for Hong Kong residents, offering a promised lifeline to Hongkongers seeking to leave after China put in place its National Security Law.
In response, China said it would no longer recognize British National (Overseas) passports, known as BN(O)s, as valid travel documents.
“The UK’s move grossly violates China’s sovereignty, interferes in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs, and runs counter to international law and basic norms governing international relations. China deplores and firmly rejects this,” said Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, at a Friday press briefing.
Officially, Hong Kong is an autonomous region, with a democratic government separate from China’s ruling party. But pro-democracy advocates and protesters said China’s restrictive new security law is stripping away freedoms.
Passed unilaterally by China in June 2020, that law included long prison sentences for protesters and other vocal opponents of China’s policies. The Hong Kong Journalists Association said 98% of its members disagreed with the law, saying it eroded press freedom.
In one high-profile case, Hong Kong police arrested media mogul Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, founder of Apple Daily, a local newspaper.
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As a result, Hongkongers have fled the country. The exodus led to a massive demand for BN(O) passports, with Hong Kong residents apply for an average of five passports a minute late last year, according to Bloomberg news.
As of Sunday, holders of those passports can apply for five-year visas to live and work in the UK, according to a government statement. After five years, they’ll be able to apply for settlement for an additional 12 months, after which they can apply for citizenship.
The visa application will also be launched via smartphones on February 23, according to the UK government. BN(O) passport holders will be able to complete their applications entirely in their Hong Kong homes, a first for citizens outside the European Economic Area.
In a statement, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “In doing so we have honoured our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong, and we have stood up for freedom and autonomy – values both the UK and Hong Kong hold dear.”
About 7,000 BN(O) passport holders were granted visas at the UK border between July 2020 and January 13, 2021, the government said. As of October, there were about 469,416 people holding BN(O) passports in Hong Kong, according to the Home Office.
“We have been clear we won’t look the other way when it comes to Hong Kong. We will live up to our historic responsibility to its people,” said Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, in a statement.