I have two passports, but only one citizenship– so do many who lived under British colonial rule in Hong Kong. I am among the 350,000 British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders in the city, who have always treated the red booklet as just another travel document. It would be generous to call it a “second-class passport”: although its holders are entitled to a six-month visa-free stay in the U.K. and consular assistance, it is a long way from British citizenship.
For years I have had to explain to immigration officers around the globe why my return flight is not London-bound, and why I do not sound British. That is still better than the experiences I had using my Hong Kong passport — for example when I was almost denied entry to Croatia because officers mistook it for a Chinese passport. When they pointed to the Chinese national flag on the cover, I struggled to explain the difference between Hong Kong and China.
Yet, things have changed dramatically in the past weeks. After China announced its plan to impose national security laws for Hong Kong, the U.K. said would consider expanding visa rights for BNO holders, and ultimately providing a way for full citizenship for about 2.9 million people in the territory who are eligible for the passport.
What does it really mean for people like me in Hong Kong?
A reasonable guess would be many of the young professionals in the financial hub are fleeing their homes and Beijing’s tightening grip, seeking to build a new life in the “land of freedom” and democratic ideals. But that is always easier said than done.
I was a toddler when British soldiers lowered the Union Flag in Hong Kong during the 1997 handover. Since then, I have lived under Chinese rule. Still, when asked where I come from, “Hong Kong” — instead of “China” — would be my default answer.
A recent survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute found that over half the territory’s population identified themselves as “Hongkongers,” compared to only about 10% who identified as “Chinese.”
This can be largely attributed to the unique way of life we have enjoyed. The Basic Law, our mini-constitution, guaranteed us civil liberties that are absent in mainland China, while our local language, Cantonese, further sets us apart from the rest of the country. That said, such a sense of belonging is not equivalent to national identity, mostly because Hong Kong is not a nation, and it never was.
Hong Kong has never been seen as a permanent home. Over the past decades, it has served as a temporary shelter. Our grandparents fled to the city from China during the civil war in the 1940s and 1950s; our parents scrambled to leave Hong Kong before the 1997 handover. For my generation, we now face the choice of living in a distant country or an authoritarian state. This refugee-like mindset has been ingrained in our souls through generations.
For people of our age, nationality exists only in name. When traveling with our peers, it is common for us to hold various passports, from British to Canadian to Australian, but they do not necessarily identify themselves with that country. Many of them inherited the passports from their parents, who emigrated before the handover and returned to Hong Kong afterwards.
A foreign passport is like a beginner package for many middle-class families here. People come to consider their second passport a “safety net” or a “Plan B,” especially for those who witnessed the pre-handover emigration wave, during which about half a million people left their homes for good.
After the news about potential U.K. citizenship was announced, many friends came to me and asked me to co-sign their BNO renewal applications. (For some reason, journalists are on the list of professions qualified as a co-signatory.) I asked whether they really want to leave. Most of them said “no.”
A friend put it in a nice metaphor, noting that moving to the U.K. is like “boarding a much-coveted lifeboat: it is an option that no one wants to take until the Titanic begins to sink.” Before that, everyone wants to go on business as usual. The music plays on. The dance goes on.
Another turned emotional. “It feels bad to abandon your hometown. I thought I could defend it until the end. But given how quickly things are turning south, it seems impossible to continue to live in Hong Kong now, I mean, the Hong Kong that we know…”
For me, as a journalist — one of the most vulnerable groups under China’s new security protocols — I only hope I can stay as long as I can, report as much as I can, and do a little good for the place I love.
Michelle Chan is a Nikkei staff writer in Hong Kong