Down and Out in Hong Kong

Hong Kong Immigration
A mainland Chinese woman pleads with police officers to let her into the headquarters of Hong Kong's immigration authority, April 23, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

The five-year-long legal struggle by mainland Chinese immigrants to win residency in Hong Kong took a dramatic turn on April 1, when more than 4,000 immigrants defied the deadline to leave the former British colony. Immigration officials are now threatening to forcibly repatriate these immigrants, or, as they are being called, right-of-abode claimants.

Michael Wong, deputy secretary for security, said to Xinhua (April 1) that thousands of Chinese immigrants have already obtained identification letters from the Immigration Department and returned to the mainland voluntarily during the government-approved “grace period,” which ended on midnight of March 31. “Our removal action is legitimate and necessary,” Wong said.

Cliff Buddle, writing in the South China Morning Post, vehemently disagreed. In his April 5 editorial headlined “Room for More Compassion,” he wrote, “The failure of abode-seekers’ humanitarian appeals bolsters the case for courts to actively defend human rights.”
His article cited numerous cases in which families would be split apart—parents from children, children from parents, or siblings from siblings—because only one party had Hong Kong residency rights. “In the current right-of-abode cases, the director [of immigration] has promised to consider humanitarian grounds....[But] in light of some of the more extreme cases which have recently been rejected, it is difficult to understand what they could be.”

The right-of-abode saga has not only highlighted the quality-of-life disparity that continues to exist between mainland China and Hong Kong—a formula known as “one country, two systems”—but the ambivalence with which citizens of Hong Kong regard their Chinese neighbors, particularly those from China’s poorer southern regions. According to reports, even stalwart critics of Hong Kong’s unpopular Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, a leader handpicked and installed by Beijing, acknowledge that basic rights, which may or may not be guaranteed in China, have stayed intact in Hong Kong since its hand-over from Britain to China in July 1997.

The escalating immigration conflict meanwhile has attracted international scrutiny and criticism, even, according to Ta Kung Pao, from the Vatican. An April 1 editorial in the paper condemned the Vatican “for interfering in Hong Kong’s internal affairs,” as well as Radio and Television Hong Kong for urging those claimants “who lost their appeal to fight to the end” and for “playing havoc with Hong Kong’s social order.”

Wen Wei Po reacted similarly in a March 30 editorial: “The society of Hong Kong cannot tolerate these activities that pay no respect to Hong Kong’s legal system and disregard the interests of the people of Hong Kong.”