China considers banning Hong Kong residents with UK passports from public office

Britain last year created a pathway to citizenship for the more than one million Hong Kong residents who hold British National (Overseas) passports. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - China is discussing whether to ban Hong Kong residents who hold special British passports from public office, the South China Morning Post reported, in the latest measure planned to restrict dissent in Hong Kong.

The proposal is intended as retaliation against Britain's decision last year to create a pathway to citizenship for the more than one million Hong Kong residents who hold British National (Overseas) or BNO passports, the newspaper said on Thursday, citing people it didn't identify.

Chinese lawmakers were also mulling whether to deny BNO holders the right to vote in the former British colony, although the report said there was disagreement over such a step.

Britain will begin accepting citizenship applications for as many as 2.9 million BNO-eligible Hong Kong residents on Jan 31 - a plan London announced after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law in June. Both sides have accused each other of breaching commitments that paved the way for the city's return to Chinese rule in 1997.

Representatives for the Hong Kong government didn't immediately respond on Thursday (Jan 14) to a request for comment about the SCMP report.

Asked on Tuesday about another proposal to punish BNO passport holders, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she was "not aware of certain options" and denied that the local government was discussing any such measures. But she added: "If someone has now unilaterally deviated from the consensus, it would be a matter of course for the other party to take some action."

The proposal is among a number of Hong Kong issues that local media say are slated for discussion at a closed-door meeting of China's top legislative body next week in Beijing. The meeting coincides with President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration in Washington, underscoring the challenges the new United States administration faces in pledging to protect democratic freedoms around the world.

On Thursday, Hong Kong authorities arrested 11 people on suspicion of helping activists flee to Taiwan, local broadcaster Cable TV reported, citing unidentified people.

The previously unscheduled meeting of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, which starts on Wednesday, has deepened concern that China is planning to further curtail dissent in the city.

The People's Daily newspaper, the main mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, earlier this week urged action to prevent Hong Kong elections from becoming a "tool for anti-China and troublemaking forces."

Reports of new measures by Beijing targeting Hong Kong's election process suggests a growing desire to rein in the opposition that it blames for historic and sometimes violent protests in 2019.

Previously, the NPC Standing Committee ruled that Hong Kong's government could expel lawmakers from the Legislative Council who were deemed insufficiently patriotic, a move that led to the mass resignation of the city's remaining opposition.

Applications for BNO status are surging, with Britain granting more than 210,000 passports in the first 10 months of last year, according to UK Passport Office data. Britain estimates that as many as 322,000 BNO holders will move to the country by 2025, suggesting that most applicants want the documents as a hedge.

Under Hong Kong law, top politicians, such as the chief executive, chief justice and lawmakers representing geographical districts, must be not have right of abode in any foreign country. There are exceptions for some other public offices and foreign passport holders are allowed to be civil servants, including police officers.

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