HONG KONG, March 25 (Reuters) – The Hong Kong government has told a number of foreign consulates to stop accepting a UK travel document that many of its youth use to apply for a Working Holiday Visa in Europe, North America and parts of Asia, diplomats say. .
In a move considered a diplomatic insult by some envoys, the government informed a dozen foreign consulates in a letter that it no longer considered the British National Overseas (BNO) passport to be a valid travel document as of January 31.
The letter, seen by Reuters, demanded that his Hong Kong passport be used instead.
In January, a diplomatic row broke out over the BNO after Britain introduced a new visa regime that provides a path to full citizenship for Hong Kongers wishing to leave the China-ruled territory.
Britain launched the plan after Hong Kong passed a sweeping national security law last year, which critics say crushes disagreements in the former British colony.
Nearly 3 million Hong Kong residents have or are eligible for the BNO document, which was drawn up before Britain returned the city to Chinese rule in 1997.
Hong Kong also began to mirror mainland China by not recognizing dual citizenship, allowing foreign diplomats to visit locals with foreign passports in detention for the first time.
“Most countries will ignore this,” said a senior Western diplomat who had seen the letter.
“It’s the Hong Kong government just trying … they have no right to tell a state which 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 aware of the city’s reputation as an international financial center, has traditionally behaved.
The Hong Kong government has yet to respond to Reuters’ request for comment.
A Hong Kong government website lists 14 countries under the reciprocal Working Holiday Scheme, including Japan, Canada, Germany, Great Britain and Australia.
Officials in Japan, South Korea, Italy and New Zealand confirmed to Reuters that they still recognized BNO’s visa passport. The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs added that it had not received the letter while Hungary had, and had begun talks to change the working holiday schedule.
Other countries including the United States, Finland and Norway also offer similar schemes or student exchanges for Hong Kongers and have accepted BNOs from applicants.
It is not known whether the United States received the letter, but a State Department spokesperson told Reuters that BNO remained valid to issue visas and travel to the United States.
Hong Kong’s moves against BNO followed an announcement by the British government that its new visa could attract more than 300,000 people and their families.
London said it fulfilled a historic and moral commitment to the people of Hong Kong in the wake of the National Security Act, which allows suspects in serious cases to be transferred across the border and tried by mainland Chinese courts.
Beijing and Hong Kong authorities say the legislation is needed to bring stability to the city after anti-government protests flared up in 2019.
The UK scheme allows people with BNO status to live, study and work in Great Britain for five years and eventually apply for citizenship.
Beijing said it would make them second-class citizens, a line propagated by pro-Beijing media commentators in Hong Kong.
Britain returned its former colony to Chinese rule in 1997 with the guarantee that its core freedoms, extended autonomy and capitalist way of life are protected. (Reporting by Greg Torode and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong, additional reporting by Krisztina Than in Hungary, Antoni Slodkowski in Tokyo, Hyonhee Shin in South Korea, Praveen Menon in New Zealand and Crispian Balmer in Italy; edited by Simon Cameron- Moore)