HONG KONG — China announced on Friday that it would no longer recognize certain British travel documents, in retaliation for Britain’s decision last year to grant potentially millions of Hong Kong residents visas and eventually a path to citizenship.
The announcement, which came hours after Britain declared a formal start date for its new visa program, was the latest escalation of tensions between the two countries over the fate of Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese control in 1997.
After Beijing moved to impose a national security law on Hong Kong last summer that gave the authorities sweeping powers to curtail dissent, Britain accused China of violating its promise to grant Hong Kong 50 years of semi-autonomy. The British government said in June that it would create a special visa pathway for holders of British National (Overseas) passports, a unique category created for Hong Kongers before the 1997 transfer of power.
Under the new rules, Hong Kong residents who had applied for BN(O) status before the handover would be eligible for a special visa that would entitle them to live, work or study in the United Kingdom for up to five years; after an additional year, they would then be allowed to apply for citizenship.
The British government estimated that there were 2.9 million BN(O) citizens in Hong Kong, along with 2.3 million dependents who would be eligible to move with them, though it was unclear how many residents would actually seek to emigrate. The government predicted that between 123,000 and 153,700 people would use the new pathway in the first year. Not all BN(O) citizens have BN(O) passports, but they are eligible to apply for them.
“We have honored our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong, and we have stood up for freedom and autonomy,” Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, said in a statement on Friday, alongside the announcement that applications for the new pathway would open on Jan. 31.
Britain’s plan had incensed Beijing, which quickly warned of potential retaliation. On Friday, Chinese government officials made clear that they saw the new visa rules as a direct challenge to their sovereignty.
Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said at a news conference that the plan was an effort to turn Hong Kong residents into second-class British citizens, according to a write-up of his remarks by CCTV, China’s state broadcaster.
China will stop recognizing BN(O) passports as valid travel or identifying documents on Jan. 31, Mr. Zhao said, adding that China “reserved the right to take further actions.”
It was not immediately clear whether the announcement was more symbolic or substantive. BN(O) passport holders can also hold Hong Kong passports or other foreign passports, which are not affected by the measure.
Some pro-Beijing officials have sought to close such perceived loopholes. Regina Ip, a Hong Kong lawmaker, proposed earlier this month that the territory deny right of abode to residents with dual citizenship. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said there were no such plans in the making.
Claire Fu contributed research from Beijing. Elian Peltier contributed reporting from London.