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As the decades pass, emotions can cool and attitudes change. And in Hong Kong, the political facts also are quite different from those during British rule of 1971 and earlier years. Thus it is no great surprise that dozens of now-elderly leftwing activists, once hustled across the border to the mainland, are trickling back to the SAR on private visits - thanks to a quiet government policy of rescinding their deportation orders.
Under a now-defunct expulsion law, colonial authorities shipped some 40,000 local residents to China between 1949 and 1971, when the law expired. Their ranks included educators, alleged spies and others who purportedly worked to spread communist political influence at the expense of British rule. They were not convicted of any crimes but were somewhat summarily shipped out of the colony on short notice, and denied permission to return.
It is not known how many of them survive; most of the deportations date back to the 1950s and 1960s. But the SAR administration confirms that since the 1997 handover it has received 111 applications to have expulsion orders rescinded, and so far has approved 46 of them. Without such recision, the deportation orders remain in effect.
Apparently the pace of both applications and approvals is picking up, which is understandable and reasonable. Many of these people retain family and personal ties to Hong Kong, and want to revisit the former colony while their health allows. Two of the most prominent returnees to date are a former senior police official, expelled as a Beijing spy, and a one-time middle school principal who was considered a leftwing agitator. They are now, respectively, 76 and 85 years old.
A policy of leniency seems quite in order; the political situation has changed fundamentally in recent decades and some sort of statute of limitations should apply. A case-by-case approach still allows authorities to keep out any deportees who were involved in serious crimes.
Letting these former residents return is not at all the same as conferring high honours on former organisers of deadly street violence.
One is an example of bad judgment; the other is a humane approach towards those whose more benign activism is something for the history books.