It is a reminder of the roots and core values of Hong Kong, particularly over the past five years of political turmoil.

A while ago on a trip from Hong Kong to Osaka, a peculiar scene caught my attention. I found myself standing behind a group of energetic young people lining up for immigration clearance at the airport. They were excitedly discussing the itinerary for their first trip to Japan, exchanging ideas on where to eat the best ramen and the fastest route to get to their hotel. They all had their passports in their hands as they drew closer to the counter. They were all Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passport holders. But they were all speaking Mandarin among each other, instead of Cantonese, Hong Kong's native tongue.

“They are new Hong Kongers,” said my friend who was standing next to me in the queue. “Now this,” she said, flashing her passport, “is the symbol of an old Hong Konger like me.”

My friend had a British National (Overseas) or BNO passport. The BNO passport was granted to those who were born in Hong Kong before the UK handed the city over to China in July 1997. About 3.4 million Hong Kong citizens were granted the passport, which can be renewed every ten years. I always jokingly call the BNO passport a “fake” British passport, as while the cover design is identical to that of an ordinary British passport, it does not give the holder the right of abode in the UK. It gives the passport holder no advantage when traveling to countries of European Union either, as they must join the queue for “other passports” instead of the one for EU passports.

After the handover and under the premise of “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China. The government can grant the Hong Kong SAR passport to applicants who have lived in Hong Kong for seven years or longer and are Chinese citizens. According to the Passport Index 2017, which ranks the “power” of passports all over the world according to the ability of their holders to enter other countries visa-free, the Hong Kong SAR passport comes in at equal 43rd, with visa-free entry to 146 jurisdictions (German passports, the highest “tier” passport, grant visa-free access to 161).

It has been more than two decades since Hong Kong became part of China. People in Hong Kong should have been glad that the city was finally free from over a century of British colonial rule. They should have been proud of holding a passport that truly represents not only their identity but also the city's new identity after its reunification with the motherland.

But the truth is that more Hong Kongers are applying for a BNO passport. More than 37,500 BNO passports were issued in 2016, the highest number in more than a decade. The BNO passport's power lies in not how many countries the holder can travel to visa-free, but in the fact that only those “old Hong Kongers” born before July 1997 are eligible to apply. It is a reminder of the roots and core values of Hong Kong, particularly over the past five years of political turmoil that threatens the city’s freedoms and the rule of law.

Immigrants from the mainland arrive in Hong Kong for a number of different reasons, under a variety of schemes. The one-way permit scheme, granted to those who migrate to the city for family reunion, has a quota of 150 entrants per day. It was reported that as of the end of 2016, nearly a million mainlanders have been given this permit to move to Hong Kong. Other migrant schemes such as the Mainland Talents and Professionals scheme and the Quality Migrant Admission scheme have also brought skilled individuals to Hong Kong, including renowned pianist Lang Lang and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" star Zhang Ziyi.

There are also other cases such as students staying on after graduation, capital investors and those who have married Hong Kongers. These "new Hong Kongers" can eventually apply for the Hong Kong SAR passport, but not the BNO.

“That's why I'm still holding on to my BNO,” my friend said as she approached the immigration counter. As time goes by and as BNO passport holders pass on, Hong Kong will no doubt be a city run by many “new Hong Kongers” by 2047, the year when the promise of 50 years of “one country, two systems” expires.

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This article originally appeared in the Lowy Interpreter. The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article.

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston