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Hong Kongers in UK ‘feeling nervous’ over ID card changes

Hong Kong residents will need to replace their ID cards over the next two years, authorities say, which could force those living in the United Kingdom or elsewhere to choose between going back and risking possible arrest, or being unable to return indefinitely.

Smart ID cards issued before Nov. 26, 2018, will be invalidated in two phases in 2025, the government said on June 18. Cards belonging to people born in or after 1970 will expire on May 12, 2025, while cards issued to people born in 1969 or before will expire on Oct. 12 next year.

Anyone outside of Hong Kong will be given a 30-day grace period to allow them to replace their old ID card on their return, the statement said.

But overseas Hong Kongers who fled a political crackdown on dissent in the wake of the 2019 protest movement said they could be forced to choose between risking arrest on their return, and losing the ability to return to the city in future, where many still have families and property.

Many Hong Kongers who settled in the United Kingdom on the British government’s lifeboat program for holders of the British National Overseas, or BNO, passport also hold a Chinese passport that is specific to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. 

A first-generation Hong Kong ID card (left), with a second-generation Hong Kong smart ID card issued in 2018 (right). (Illustration/Photo: Matthew Leung/RFA)

But anyone seeking to renew their Chinese passport without traveling back to Hong Kong could be stymied by a lack of valid ID card, a prerequisite for passport renewal applications.

When the British government launched the BNO visa program, offering a pathway to long-term residency and citizenship, China reacted angrily, and announced it would no longer recognize the BNO passport.

The catch

While permanent residents won’t lose their right of abode in Hong Kong, and can get back into Hong Kong with a valid ID card alone, once the card expires returning Hong Kongers will effectively need a Hong Kong-issued SAR passport or another country’s passport to be allowed in through the immigration checkpoint.

“There are always worries about going back to Hong Kong,” a said Hong Konger in the U.K. who gave only the nickname Ringo for fear of reprisals. “Some people weren’t planning to go back, while others may be waiting until after naturalization [as a British citizen].”

“But now they’re going to feel a lot more nervous if they need to go back to Hong Kong before their ID cards expire,” she said.

Hong Kong’s deputy director of immigration Eric Wong displays Smart ID Cards in his office, Feb. 20, 2002, in Hong Kong, as Hong Kong prepares to make its 6.9 million citizens carry “smart” identity cards. (Vincent Yu/AP)

“And it’s more expense because they’ll need to spend money on a flight back to Hong Kong in the next year or so, which they might not have counted on doing,” Ringo said.

A former Hong Kong immigration assistant who gave only the surname Chan for fear of reprisals said the announcement was likely an attempt to intimidate people who had fled the crackdown.

“It’s obvious that they’re using the ID card replacement scheme to intimidate some Hong Kongers who emigrated to the U.K., making them feel as if they could face further difficulties if they go back to Hong Kong to renew their ID cards,” Chan said.

The Hong Kong government slammed last week’s report from RFA Cantonese on the move, saying that the replacement of ID cards was part of measures to combat fraud and identity theft, and not to suppress or intimidate Hong Kongers.

Police form a cordon at Causeway Bay on the 35th anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, near where a candlelight vigil is usually held, June 4, 2024, in Hong Kong, China, (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

“The invalidation of old ID cards will not affect one’s right of abode in Hong Kong and they could still travel in and out of Hong Kong as long as holding a valid travel document,” the government said in a June 21 statement.

But the statement didn’t address the status of BNO passport holders whose Hong Kong SAR passports had expired.

Passports revoked

Exiled Hong Kongers also told RFA Cantonese that they are also concerned that the authorities have the power to revoke a person’s Hong Kong SAR passport at any time.

Earlier this month, the city government announced it had revoked the Hong Kong SAR passports of six U.K.-based activists including former pro-democracy lawmaker Nathan Law, imposing financial sanctions on them and hitting back at the British government for “deliberately discrediting” the city with spying charges against one of its officials.

Secretary for Security Chris Tang revoked the Chinese passports of U.K.-based activists Christopher Mung and Finn Lau, former pro-democracy lawmaker Nathan Law, former British consular employee Simon Cheng, who co-founded the advocacy group Hongkongers in Britain, and overseas YouTube hosts Johnny Fok and Tony Choi. 

And many overseas Hong Kongers fear that they could be arrested under national security laws for social media activity carried out overseas.

A man waves farewell to friends as departs for a permanent move to U.K. at the Hong Kong airport, June 30, 2021. (Vincent Yu/AP)

Last November, a Hong Kong court handed down a two-month jail term to former overseas student Yuen Ching-ting, 23, after she pleaded guilty to “publishing online speech with seditious intent” to social media starting in September 2018, before the national security law took effect.

The case against her was based on her posting of “inflammatory remarks” to social media platforms, including the banned 2019 protest slogan “Free Hong Kong! Revolution now!” while she was studying in Japan.

Yuen was arrested in March after returning to Hong Kong from Japan, where she was studying. Local media outlets reported that she was in the city to change her Hong Kong identity card. She was initially arrested on suspicion of inciting secession, a crime under the national security law.

At least 191,000 people have applied to the BNO visa program so far, according to British government figures released in November.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.