One-way traffic begs to open bag of questions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 June, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 June, 1997, 12:00am

Brandishing their one-way permits they come, the lumpen-proles and the not-so-lumpen, sweeping into Hong Kong in their thousands. They are brethren, oh brothers. They are fellow Chinese, whom we cannot turn back. Many have husbands or fathers in the territory.

We cannot turn them back.

Could we look ourselves in the eye (chanting 'mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fattest cat of all?') if we deported children who had slipped in without a permit? And yet there are rules to be stuck to, lest we be swamped. Lest the daily limit of 150 one-way permit-holders be exceeded and our capacity to school, house and care for them be overwhelmed.

Lest the labour market be flooded with cheap labour.

Lest not-so-wealthy wives and children be left in China while permits are sold to the highest bidder.

Lest we tolerant people behave towards our country cousins from up the delta the way less tolerant peoples elsewhere behave towards immigrants from Hong Kong.

So when all of a sudden news leaks out that the Chinese authorities quietly exceeded the 155,000-person annual quota by 6,500 last year legislators want to know why.

Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee also wanted to know whether the matter had been brought up with the Chinese authorities and whether it contravened the 1982 Sino-British agreement on one-way permits.

Was this agreement in fact legally binding? And was the Security Branch guilty of dereliction of duty, abuse of power or maladministration? The answer to the last part of the question was easy enough. You would hardly expect Secretary for Security Peter Lai Hing-ling to say his Branch was rotten to the core.

The fact was, said Mr Lai with an actuary's precision, the quota had been exceeded by 6,279 last year.

But the number had been offset by a corresponding reduction of new permits issued in the first four months of this year, after the matter had been brought up with the Chinese.

Oh, and the one-way permit system was 'an administrative scheme based on an understanding reached between the two sides', which was transparent government-speak for 'yes, it is just a gentleman's agreement with no legal effect'.

Well, we are supposed to be grateful for a bit more transparency in the civil service. But what if the Chinese turn out not to be gentlemen after all?