Mainland visa laws a cause for concern
CHINA'S decision to deny a handful of local residents mainland entry is disturbing and unsettling as Hong Kong people look to Beijing to provide more visa-free arrangements for the territory.
Activists Lau Shan-ching, Leung Kwok-hung and Yiu Yung-chin have had their applications for Home Return Permits turned down by the China Travel Service, the organisation authorised to issue the documents.
Although no reason was given, many people were not surprised. Lau, Leung and Yiu are considered trouble-makers and are not welcomed by the Chinese authorities. No mainland authorities even bothered to give a reason for rejecting the applications, while Hong Kong people assumed they knew why China did it.
The widespread notion is that this is just a problem for people like Mr Lau and leaders of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic and Democratic Movement in China.
Innocent locals believe that as long as they follow Beijing's wishes and do not engage in activities which are regarded as antagonistic towards the Chinese Government, their right to travel freely after 1997 can be preserved.
Those adopting such views have not realised what damage Beijing's hostile approach towards the trio could do to their own freedom of travel after 1997.
Mr Lau and his fellow activists had already expressed fear that they might not be allowed re-entry to the territory if they went abroad after June 30, 1997 and they were worried that they might not be issued SAR passports.
These are legitimate concerns and the point about the potential danger of the future administration denying their entry to the territory warrants special attention. If this happens, the implication of such a discriminative practice is not going to affect only activists such as Lau, Leung and Yiu. The community at large may suffer as well. For now, foreign countries are willing to grant Hong Kong travellers visa-free access because they trust the integrity of the passport-issuing authority. The fact that local people have a very good track record and that they don't abuse the right as a vehicle for illegal immigration also weighs positively in their favour.
Apart from these considerations, the ability to return Hong Kong travellers to the territory is also a very important factor affecting foreign countries' decision to grant locals visa-free status.
If foreign immigration authorities form the impression that the post-1997 administration is likely to deny re-entry of certain individuals to Hong Kong after they go abroad, will they seriously consider whether they should continue to grant Hong Kong travellers visa-free status? No matter how much mainland authorities deny the existence of a blacklist of people, foreign immigration authorities, having witnessed how people are banned from going to China now without good reason, would tend to believe that there is indeed a black list and would prefer to act with caution.
Wondering how long such a list may be, overseas immigration authorities are more likely to opt to play safe and decide to impose more stringent measures.
SAR passport-holders would not be the only people affected by visa requirements; the British National (Overseas) passport holders could face the same fate.
You only need one case of a BN(O) passport-holder banned by the Hong Kong authorities - whether under the instruction of Beijing or not - from entering the territory to jeopardise the visa-free regime for all three million BN(O) passport-holders here. Once the foreign immigration authorities have a real example of a holder of a BN(O) or SAR passport encountering problems in returning to their home turf, the visa-free regime will undoubtedly be called into question immediately.
The discrimination against Mr Lau and his fellow activists is not only a problem for them; it is a potentially serious problem affecting many Hong Kong people. And if locals refuse to speak up on such matters they may become victims of their own silence after 1997.