Controversy written in stars

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 September, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 September, 1997, 12:00am

One of the less widely-recognised ironies of the handover is that it has made it much easier for long-term expatriate residents to acquire the right of abode in Hong Kong than it ever was during the British colonial era.

More than 7,000 such applications have been approved since July 1. A further 7,000 are being processed.

And the number of applications is likely to spiral as more people become aware of the ease with which anyone who has lived in Hong Kong for at least seven years can now apply for the right of abode, and so become free to live and work in the SAR without any threat of ever being deported.

This is a vast improvement on the situation before the handover, when there was no official mechanism for long-term residents who were neither British nor Chinese to acquire the right of abode, regardless of how many decades they had lived in Hong Kong (although a few managed to do so by exploiting the loophole of applying for British Dependent Territories Citizen's passports).

Even British expatriates could only acquire a quasi-right of abode, known as the right to land, which was abolished on June 30.

Now, under the Basic Law, all that is required from those who meet the seven-year residency requirement is a simple declaration that the SAR is the applicant's place of permanent residence.

During the rougher moments of the transition, some Beijing advisers wanted this to be interpreted restrictively, perhaps even including an ability to speak Cantonese.

But the power of such hard-liners has since waned, allowing for more liberal criteria.

All that is now required is for the applicant to have a home in Hong Kong, a steady source of income, no unpaid tax bills, nor a spouse or children settled abroad.

Once the Immigration Department has accepted an applicant satisfies these criteria, his status will be unaffected by any change in his personal circumstances.

That means someone who subsequently loses his job and is unable to pay his tax bills, or whose children move abroad, will still retain his right of abode.

The only way this status can be lost is by leaving Hong Kong for more than three years (other than for such purposes as studying or working in an employer's overseas offices).

Even then, those who lose the right of abode will still be allowed to return to live and work in Hong Kong.

They will, in effect, be able to come and go freely from Hong Kong for the rest of their lives - or, at least, until the Government changes the law again.

There is only one fly in the ointment for the thousands of long-term expatriate residents who now qualify for the right of abode and so are entitled to the Permanent Identity Cards that allow use of the fast-track immigration counters at Kai Tak, and exempt the holder from any need to produce his passport.

This is that their new ID cards will still be subtly distinguished from those of other local residents by the absence of the infamous three stars symbol, which is present on the vast majority of such cards issued to Hong Kong Chinese.

The purpose of this symbol is a source of controversy. Many observers believe it has been secretly used to identify who is a Chinese national.

The Immigration Department strongly denies this.

They insist it 'has nothing to do with the holder's national status' and simply denotes eligibility for a Re-entry Permit.

But such permits are now rarely used and the department's own Internet Web site defines eligibility for them in terms of 'Chinese race'.

For now, the absence of such a symbol makes no practical difference in terms of immigration controls.

But expatriates rejoicing in finally acquiring the right of abode, sometimes after a wait of several decades, should be aware of this unpublicised distinction which - for as long as it continues to exist - allows for the possibility that some form of discriminatory treatment could be one day introduced.