UK details pathway to citizenship for Hong Kongers, China may stop recognizing passports

The change was introduced after China imposed a national security law on Hong Kong

The British government announced Wednesday that it will open a new special pathway to obtaining U.K. citizenship for up to 3 million eligible Hong Kongers, starting January 2021.

The change to immigration rules was introduced after China imposed a new, sweeping national security law on Hong Kong. Britain's Home Office said in a statement that holders of the British National Overseas passport and their immediate family members can move to the U.K. to work and study.

“Today’s announcement shows the U.K. is keeping its word: We will not look the other way on Hong Kong, and we will not duck our historic responsibilities to its people,” said British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

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In a press conference Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China might stop recognizing British National Overseas passports as valid travel documents. Such a move could bar people from leaving Hong Kong without permission from the Chinese government.

British Interior Minister Priti Patel confirmed eligible Hong Kongers will not need a job to come to the U.K.

“They do not need to have a job before coming to the U.K. - they can look for work once here. They may bring their immediate dependants, including non-BN(O) citizens,” Patel said in a statement, according to Reuters. “There will be no skills tests or minimum income requirements, economic needs tests, or caps on numbers. I am giving BN(O) citizens the opportunity to acquire full British citizenship."

Britain announced earlier this month it was extending residency rights for some 2.9 million people eligible for the British National Overseas passport in Hong Kong, stressing that it would uphold its duty to the former British colony after the new law was imposed.

A demonstrator waves a flag during a rally to show support for Hong Kong pro-democracy protests at Free Square in Taipei on June 13, 2020. (Photo by SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images)

A demonstrator waves a flag during a rally to show support for Hong Kong pro-democracy protests at Free Square in Taipei on June 13, 2020. (Photo by SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images)

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Eligible individuals from Hong Kong currently can come to the U.K. for six months without a visa. With the rule change, they will have the right to live and work in the country for five years. After that, they will be allowed to apply for settled status and then again for citizenship.

Those eligible can access the British job market at any skill level and without a salary threshold, but won’t have access to public funds.

The U.K. introduced a special, limited type of British nationality in the 1980s for people who were a “British dependent territories citizen by connection with Hong Kong.”

The passports did not confer nationality or the automatic right to live and work in Britain, but entitled holders to consular assistance from U.K. diplomatic posts.

Britain handed over Hong Kong, its former colony, to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997, under a “One Country, Two Systems” framework that was supposed to guarantee the city a high degree of autonomy and Western-style civil liberties not seen on mainland China.

The new national security law, enacted just ahead of the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong becoming a special administrative region of China, criminalizes subversive, secessionist, or terrorist activities and collusion with foreign forces to intervene in the city's affairs.

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In some cases, mainland China will assume legal jurisdiction and suspects could be sent there for trial. The changes are seen by many as Beijing’s boldest move yet to erase the legal firewall between the semi-autonomous territory and the mainland’s authoritarian Communist Party system.

Beijing has said that Britain's move to offer refuge to Hong Kong residents constitutes interference in internal matters.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.