Backgrounder: What is the BNO passport?

London recently announced that Hong Kong residents holding British National Overseas (BNO) passports can come to Britain and seek citizenship after a five-year period, a plan which Beijing has expressed firm opposition to. 

The announcement came after the Law of the People's Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) took effect on Tuesday. 

Meanwhile, some media reports on Friday said the HKSAR government was planning to force its employees to give up their BNO passports. The HKSAR government has denied the claim. 

As the BNO passport becomes a focus in the ongoing dispute, CGTN explains what it is, what the British proposal means and why the proposal is controversial.

Travel document without citizenship rights

The BNO passport is basically a travel document that does not carry citizenship rights. It was issued to people in Hong Kong by the United Kingdom before Hong Kong returned to China in 1997. 

The passport allows its carriers to visit Britain visa-free for six months, but they do not have the right of abode and cannot work in the country, nor do they have access to public funds, like government benefits. 

There are currently around 300,000 BNO passport holders in Hong Kong and a further 2.5 to 2.7 million people are eligible to apply for one. 

The UK said it will expand the visa-free access of Hong Kong's BNO passport holders from six months to five years and give them the right to work and study in Britain during that period. They will then be able to apply for settled status and seek official citizenship after a year. The changes could potentially affect up to 3 million people in Hong Kong.

The British National Overseas (BNO) passport. /AP

The British National Overseas (BNO) passport. /AP

China: UK is breaking its own position

A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Britain said Thursday that China firmly opposes Britain's offer to provide more privileges for Hong Kong residents holding BNO passports, and reserves the right to take corresponding measures. 

The embassy's spokesperson said that with regard to the BNO passport, in memoranda exchanged between the two sides, the British side declared it would not confer the right of abode to Chinese citizens in Hong Kong holding BNO passports. 

"If the British side makes unilateral changes to the relevant practice, it will breach its own position and pledges as well as international law and basic norms governing international relations," the spokesperson said. 

The spokesperson also urged the UK to view objectively and fairly the national security legislation for Hong Kong, respect China's position and concerns, and refrain from interfering in Hong Kong affairs in any form.

Read more:

China opposes UK's citizenship offer to Hong Kong residents

'Hypocritical' offer

While the UK offers up to 3 million Hong Kong residents the right to work and a pathway to future British citizenship, the country itself is facing serious unemployment problems amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Data from the UK National Statistics office shows the number of people claiming unemployment benefits rose to 2.8 million in May, the highest since 1993. Experts predict this number could surge to 3.5 million this year as a result of the pandemic.  

But according to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's offer, BNO passport holders from Hong Kong would be able to apply to work in the UK before gaining citizenship. Critics say the strain on the country's job system would be too great.

A cyclist rides past closed shops due to the coronavirus lockdown in London, UK, May 5, 2020. /AP

A cyclist rides past closed shops due to the coronavirus lockdown in London, UK, May 5, 2020. /AP

"I don't think that the government has actually thought through its policy in Hong Kong and what would it means if these three million people were coming into Britain," Ben Chacko, a British political commentator and editor of the Morning Star, told CGTN.  

"I think they just picked a number out in the air in order to annoy the Chinese government without thinking through the consequences of what they are doing," Chacko added. 

The offer also contradicts the UK's immigration policies, he suggested. 

Taking back control of its borders was one of the UK's main focuses in Brexit. And the country has been taking a tough stance on immigration. In February, the British government introduced a points-based system for migrants. Ways to gain points include reaching a certain income level and work experience. 

However, there would be no income test requirement in the path to citizenship or cap on numbers for BNO passport holders from Hong Kong. 

"I think that this shows how hypocritical the government is, because actually there's a global refugee crisis, there are thousands of people who are drowning in the Mediterranean trying to reach to safety in Europe and the British government does not let these people in, and yet suddenly they are offering this ridiculous figure of three million people coming from Hong Kong," Chacko said. 

"If they (the British government) are so concerned about protecting people, there are lots of refugees that they could be taking in," he said. 

(With input from Xinhua)