17 February 2019
Beijing imposed the Chinese nationality on all Hongkongers of Chinese descent, and it doesn't matter if they hold a BNO passport, which doesn't entitle them to a British citizenship. Photos: VOA, Serge Averbukh
Beijing imposed the Chinese nationality on all Hongkongers of Chinese descent, and it doesn't matter if they hold a BNO passport, which doesn't entitle them to a British citizenship. Photos: VOA, Serge Averbukh

Should you put your faith in your BNO passport?

People born in British Hong Kong have no specified nationality on their birth certificate, yet Beijing, singlehandedly and without any consultation, imposed the Chinese nationality on all Hongkongers of ethnic Chinese descent and made them Chinese nationals.

It doesn’t matter if they are holders of the “British Dependent Territories Citizens passport”, the colonial Hong Kong travel document, or “British National (Overseas) passport” issued to replace the former.

The Chinese Nationality Law has been made applicable to the special administrative region since 1997.

Lee Bo, the missing Hong Kong bookseller, holds a British passport. Expressing deep concern over his disappearance, Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office reminded Beijing that Lee is a British citizen.

But the official Beijing position on this matter, as enunciated by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅), is that Lee is “first and foremost a Chinese national according to the Chinese Nationality Law”.

Wang is implying that Lee is within China’s jurisdiction and covered by Chinese laws, and therefore, foreign governments should mind their own business, thank you very much.

“Those unpatriotic Hongkongers can renounce their Chinese nationality,” said Chen Zuoer (陳佐洱), former deputy director of the Chinese State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office known for his bellicose remarks.

But according to the immigration department, one has to meet a slew of requirements – like marrying a foreign national or emigrating overseas – to abdicate the Chinese nationality that most Hongkongers hadn’t thought of obtaining in the first place.

When it comes to issues related to nationality or patriotism, Beijing invokes common lineage and shared ancestors.

Yet when the preaching is repeated ad nauseam, the high-sounding words lose their meaning. 

All human beings on this planet, after all, are descendants of a hominid called Lucy who lived on the African continent some 3.2 million years ago, as archaeologists believe.

The simple concept of nationality has always been so complicated to those in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Michael Davis, law professor at the University of Hong Kong specializing in human rights and constitutional law, told the Hong Kong Economic Journal that the nascent rendition crisis, believed to have been done by some rogue security officers from the mainland, reminds us that there should be a de facto extradition treaty between Hong Kong and China to prevent unauthorized cross-border law enforcement.

Beijing has already struck deals with Washington and Ottawa for the latter to deport runaway cadres or fugitives on a case-by-case basis with pledges of ensuring the deportees’ legal rights, and this can serve as a model for similar notification and handover mechanism between Hong Kong and the mainland.

Though, as Davis admits, whether Hong Kong officials, representing a separate, unaffiliated jurisdiction, can be on an equal footing with Beijing during negotiations is highly dubitable under the current climate.

There are legal ambiguities in the case of Hong Kong permanent residents who own British, US, Canadian, Australian or any other passports.

Beijing used to maintain a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude toward this issue: it wouldn’t bother to bar Hongkongers from obtaining foreign nationalities, nor would there be any difference to Beijing if a Hongkonger enters the mainland with his home return permit or foreign passport.

When a Hongkonger has the Chinese nationality, as Davis points out, he may not be able to seek British consular protection in Hong Kong or the mainland even though he is a British citizen, as Beijing has unequivocally denied that right in its annex to the nationality law.

Now the message is clear that no matter how many foreign passports a Hongkonger has, or how hard he avoids traveling to the mainland, he may still fall foul of China’s security enforcers.

This leads us to the chilly prospect of more people disappearing all of a sudden in Hong Kong and later resurfacing in the mainland.

Many put their faith in their British National Overseas (BNO) passport.

The document was issued to Hongkongers born before the day of handover, with London’s caveat that it didn’t entitle them to British citizenship.

But as international studies scholar Simon Shen Xuhui noted in his column, since Britain is a member of the European Union that accepts the BNO as a valid travel document, holders can enjoy visa-free stays of up to several months in some EU member countries and this can mean a world of difference for a person in times of crisis.

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A shop assistant displays a Hong Kong Bauhinia emblem and a Chinese national flag souvenir. Photo: AFP

Two Royal Navy solders remove a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II from the former Prince of Wales Building in the Central Barracks on June 30, 1997. The place is now the headquarters of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Hong Kong Garrison. Pho

Fireworks light up Victoria Harbor on the evening of the handover. Photo: AFP

EJ Insight writer

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