HONG KONG -- The Chinese government said on Friday that it will no longer recognize a special U.K. passport issued to Hong Kong residents who lived under London's colonial rule over the city in retaliation for Britain's move to allow holders to apply to live and work in the country.
Under the program starting Jan. 31, an estimated 2.9 million Hong Kong residents, along with up to 2.3 million of their dependents, could be allowed to stay in the U.K. for up to five years and start on a path to citizenship. Hong Kong has a population of 7.5 million.
Applications for what are known as British National (Overseas) passports have soared over the past year, particularly since Beijing imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong in June. Until now, BNO passports gave holders no right to live and work in the U.K., but could be used for travel.
The U.K. government's "attempt to turn a large number of Hong Kong people into second-class British citizens has completely changed the BN(O) nature of the original Sino-British understanding," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a news conference in Beijing on Friday.
Zhao said the policy "has seriously violated China's sovereignty, interfered in the country's domestic politics and broken the rules of international laws," adding that Beijing "reserves the right to take further measures."
Since the security law came into effect, scores of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, including former legislator Nathan Law, have fled into exile in the U.K. and other countries.
Law offered his support for Britain's immigration offer to city residents. "It's a commitment to the historical agreement to Hong Kong and I think it's important that we offer safe exit for the people who are facing political suppression in Hong Kong," the BBC quoted him Friday as saying.
The new security legislation provides criminal penalties for secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Suspects can be extradited for trial in mainland China and face life imprisonment.
Hong Kong authorities have arrested nearly 100 people under the law and four have been formally charged, including prominent media mogul Jimmy Lai, founder of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily.
Arguing that the law broke Beijing's commitments under the terms of the 1997 Hong Kong handover, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government created the new immigration channel for Hong Kong residents.
Britain created the BN(O) nationality status before the handover to allow Hong Kong residents the opportunity to retain their ties with their former colonial ruler.
"The bespoke new Hong Kong BN(O) visa recognizes our historic and moral commitment to BN(O) citizens in Hong Kong, giving them the option to live in the U.K. if they decide that is an appropriate choice for them," said Britain's Home Office, which oversees immigration, in an earlier statement.
After five years, visa holders will be able to apply for "settlement" and then British citizenship after an additional 12 months.
The Home Office said it expects 123,000 to 153,700 applicants and their dependents to arrive in the first year of the program, and between 258,000 and 322,400 to come in cumulatively over the program's five-year run. It estimates "the net benefit for the U.K." at between 2.4 billion pounds and 2.9 billion pounds ($3.3 billion to $4 billion) over the period.
The change in Britain's immigration policy, combined with a tax holiday on real estate transactions, has led to a jump in investment appetite for U.K. properties among Hong Kong residents, property companies have said.