Last year, China imposed a comprehensive national security law on Hong Kong that, according to critics, stripped the city of its autonomy and valuable civil and social freedoms, while cementing Beijing’s authoritarian rule over the territory. Since then, many prominent activists and politicians have fled, while others have quietly started moving overseas.
The law criminalizes secession, subversion, and collusion with foreign forces, and carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
According to the UK Home Office, which CNN acquired as part of a freedom of information request, more than 400,000 BN (O) passports have been issued to Hong Kong residents since July 2019, when anti-government protests erupted across the city than the total number of in issued over the past 15 years.
At the time of the proposal for the National Security Law, the number of passports issued rose from 7,515 in June 2020 to over 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 has reacted angrily to the proposed plan, claiming it is in breach of the deal that transferred Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule, which London argues that it undermines national security law.
At a regular news conference on Friday, China Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused the UK of “failing to take into account the fact that Hong Kong has returned to the motherland for 24 years” and violating promises made at the time of the handover.
He said the BN (O) path to citizenship “seriously violates China’s sovereignty, grossly interferes in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs, and seriously violates international law and basic standards of international relations.”
As of January 31, Zhao said, China will no longer recognize BN (O) passports as travel documents or proof of identity and “reserve the right to take further action”.
However, it is not clear what the practical implications of such a move would be as most Hong Kong residents, whether foreign or Chinese nationals, use locally issued identity cards to enter or leave the area and for most identity purposes as well. Many of those who are eligible for a BN (O) pass can also apply for and have a Hong Kong passport, which can also be used for these purposes.
BN (O) passports have never been fully accepted for travel to mainland China where Hong Kong ethnic Chinese residents use a return home permit along with their Hong Kong ID or passport.
Given the limited scope of this immediate response, many have suggested that further steps could come, especially if large numbers of people leave Hong Kong in the coming months.
“Thereafter, it is believed that Hong Kong Chinese who voluntarily acquire foreign citizenship have lost Chinese citizenship under Article 9 of the Chinese Citizenship Law,” said Ip. “If you are making a conscious decision to leave Hong Kong and implicitly give up, it is only right to be asked to make your choice – China or a foreign country – foreign citizenship or Hong Kong residency and voting rights.”
Also, BN (O) holders might not be the only ones leaving. Around the time of the 1997 surrender, many Hong Kong residents acquired foreign citizenship, especially in Commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia, both of which had generous immigration policies at the time.
In December 2020, former lawmaker Ted Hui fled Hong Kong dramatically and used a fake environmental conference to skip his bail. Now he has applied for asylum in the UK. Nathan Law, a well-known former lawmaker and leader of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, has also applied for asylum there while others have sought protection in Germany, the US and Australia.
Escape overseas doesn’t always translate into complete freedom: the law and other exiles have complained about being shadowed and even harassed by people they believe are agents of the Chinese government, which Beijing officials have denied . They are also restricted from communicating with family and friends in Hong Kong for fear of getting them into trouble with the authorities.
While most BN (O) holders living in the UK are unlikely to be monitored in this way, the intense political environment surrounding the new system may make it difficult for those who choose not to stay in the UK to return.
Ray Wong, an activist who fled to Germany in 2017 and was among the first Hong Kong residents to be granted asylum in Europe, told CNN last year that he missed “basically everything in Hong Kong”.
“I miss being around Hong Kong people and Cantonese-speaking people,” he said. “I even miss the very uncomfortable climate.”
CNN’s Jenni Marsh and Angela Dewan contributed to the coverage.