More Hongkongers applied for a British National (Overseas) passport than a Hong Kong passport last year for the first time in history, reflecting the strong fears over the city’s future. The British government issued a record 310,000 BNO passports in 2020 — the largest annual total since Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese rule in 1997. In comparison, applications for the Hong Kong government-issued Hong Kong SAR passport dropped by 65 percent to 250,000 applications, according to figures from the Hong Kong Immigration Department. “People are scared, and when you’re scared, you’ll try to have all your options at hand,” said former leader of the Democratic Party, Emily Lau. She said it showed that many Hongkongers are worried about their futures in the city, mostly notably the decline in political freedoms, as well as freedom of expression and of the press.
The number of Hong Kong passports issued last year was at 264,877 passports. The Hong Kong government said the decline in Hong Kong SAR passports was due to COVID-19 as it had shut down some immigration services during the pandemic last year, only providing travel documents for urgent cases.
The BNO passport saw a resurgence in popularity recently as the political situation continues to deteriorate, according to Lau. The British National (Overseas) citizenship was created by the British government for Hongkongers, who were eligible to apply for it before the city’s sovereignty was handed over to China in 1997. It worked as a travel document but did not give holders any special rights in the United Kingdom. Many Hongkongers stopped renewing their BNO passports after 1997, favoring the cheaper Hong Kong passport, which also has a larger number of visa-free countries.
However, the U.K. moved to create a pathway to citizenship for BNO passport holders after a new national security law came into effect last July.
The law is considered Beijing’s hardline stance in quashing any voice of dissent in the city known for its outspokenness and mass protests. More than 100 people have already been arrested under the law, including prominent journalists, lawyers, activists and politicians.
The U.K.’s new scheme for BNO passport holders to obtain a work visa which can lead to citizenship began in January. But even before details of the scheme were announced, Hongkongers had started renewing their lapsed BNO passports in droves.
Soon after the new scheme was launched by the U.K., the Chinese government announced that it no longer recognized the BNO passport as a valid identification document.
From 2013 to 2018, the British government issued between 15,000 to 37,000 BNO passports a year. The numbers rocketed to 151,600 passports in 2019, and then further doubled last year.
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