Hong Kong’s BNO Visa Applicants Targeted By Disinformation Campaign

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  • Bloomberg Quicktake: Now published this video item, entitled “Hong Kong’s BNO Visa Applicants Targeted By Disinformation Campaign” – below is their description.

    Will people fleeing Hong Kong lose their Chinese citizenship? That’s a threat floating around online and in newspaper editorials for those seeking BNO visas as a pathway to U.K. citizenship. The U.K. has terrible weather. Taxes are high, job prospects scarce, and the people aren’t all that friendly. Moving there could also put your Chinese citizenship at risk.

    At least that is how things are being portrayed in China-friendly Hong Kong newspaper editorials and online chat rooms, and by senior officials in Hong Kong. When Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced last July the U.K. would open a gateway to people to become British citizens, so began the drum beat as to why relocating would be a poor decision.

    In recent weeks as the window opened for holders of British National (Overseas) passports to gain long-term visas — the first step toward citizenship — that rhetoric has darkened to include threats that Hong Kongers who apply could end up stateless.

    While it’s impossible to verify that the narratives flooding message boards are coordinated, China is well known for conducting influence operations. Either way, the chat rooms and editorials are being amplified by official efforts to deter Hong Kongers from leaving the Asian financial capital.

    The offer to those in the former British colony comes as Beijing erodes Hong Kong’s political freedoms, imposing a national security law and disqualifying lawmakers deemed insufficiently patriotic.

    Britain’s muddled coronavirus response — deaths have topped 118,000, while in Hong Kong they are fewer than 200 — and an economy that suffered its worst slump last year since 1709 are potential reasons on their own for Hong Kongers to pause. Taxes are indeed higher.

    But there are also reports on forums of people moving to the U.K. being ripped off in house purchases, or even chased by Chinese gangs. From authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong there are veiled warnings about the risk of families being torn apart. Hong Kong’s government didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

    Hong Kong’s former leader has gone as far as suggesting those with a BN(O) passport should lose their Chinese nationality. Hong Kongers should not “step on two ships with one foot,” Leung Chun-ying told a local media group. Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in an interview with Bloomberg last month she didn’t see why many people would want to move to the U.K.

    Hong Kong has seen exoduses before, including after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing and before the 1997 handover of the city to Chinese rule.

    But the prospect of another wave comes at a sensitive time for Beijing as it seeks to cement its hold on Hong Kong, and to prevent dissenters carrying on their efforts abroad. There’s a monetary calculation, too: Bank of America Corp. estimates Hong Kong could see capital outflows of as much as $36 billion this year as residents leave for the U.K. — equal to half the net inflow into the city in 2020.

    The U.K. government predicts around 300,000 people could come to the U.K. under the BNO program over five years. It will release the first data in May on applicants. A top adviser to the Hong Kong government has said “it won’t come close to the number of people being projected.”

    Britain has called the national security law a “clear and serious breach” of the 1984 treaty that guaranteed Hong Kong a high level of autonomy and freedoms. China says the measures are necessary to prevent further violent protests in the city. Almost 100 people have been arrested under the law to date, while students as young as six will now be taught a more patriotic curriculum.

    So far China’s actions haven’t matched its threats. Beijing’s decision not to recognize BN(O) passports as a travel document is largely symbolic as people can leave Hong Kong with a residency card. Beijing is also reportedly discussing whether to ban BN(O) holders from public office.

    But the fear among some potential visa applicants is that Beijing could remove their Chinese passports, making it harder to re-enter Hong Kong.

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