The wrong avenue for right-of-abode protests

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 June, 2006, 12:00am

However justified their case may be, four fathers of abode seekers allowed a burning sense of injustice to get the better of them when they climbed onto the roof of a footbridge and threatened to jump last week. Rush-hour traffic in Wan Chai and Causeway Bay was disrupted as police and firemen tried to talk them down. The chief executive and the security minister were quick to condemn the stunt, with the latter, Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong, rightly describing it as irresponsible.

The four were among about 60 abode seekers' parents who exercised their right to hold a peaceful protest. But the extreme actions of a few did nothing for a cause that already faces an uphill battle against the law and a public fuelled by suspicion of mainlanders.

That is regrettable. Few who read the stories of three of the parents, which we publish today, could fail to feel sympathy for their plight. No matter how desperate it is, the last thing they need is negative publicity, however. Apart from the political obstacles on both sides of the border, such incidents call to mind the horrific arson attack during a demonstration in Immigration Tower in 2000 that resulted in the deaths of an abode seeker and an immigration officer.

The four were arrested for obstructing public order. A fifth man was held for allegedly assaulting police. Given the inconvenience caused to the public, it was to be expected that Mr Lee would respond to the protest by saying it would not affect enforcement of the law on the right of abode and there would be no amnesty.

However, the government is to be commended for keeping the lines of communication open, showing it is not unwilling to talk or to try to apply the law with compassion. Immigration and security officials met abode seekers and their supporters yesterday. They will talk to the parents at another meeting tomorrow. It is in meetings such as these, rather than on the streets, and through patient argument and persuasion that the protesters are most likely to find a measure of satisfaction in the short term.

The injustice they seek to have remedied has behind it the force of a law they cannot challenge. They won their day in court seven years ago with a ruling that mainland-born children of Hong Kong residents were entitled to right of abode here, only to see it overturned when the government sought a reinterpretation of the Basic Law from Beijing. As a result, the right of abode is now confined to children born after one of their parents gained permanent residency in Hong Kong.

Events since then have thrown doubt on the government's claim that the court ruling would have resulted in more than 1.6 million mainlanders flooding in, causing huge increases in welfare spending and unemployment, the loss of vast areas of land to new housing estates and intolerable pressure on the health and education services. Four years later, little more than half the immigrants eligible under the law as it stood after the reinterpretation had opted to exercise their right, suggesting the number of potential migrants wanting to live in Hong Kong has fallen far short of expectations. The number of mainlanders settling here under the one-way-permit scheme, and particularly the number exercising their right of abode, also fell short of the official forecast.

The government's claims pandered to the worst prejudices towards mainlanders. It has taken the mainland's continuing growth and development to bring home the reality that integration is the key to our city's future success.

Mr Lee has said the government will press on with discussions with mainland authorities about using some of the permits issued under the existing quota system to allow abode seekers to come to Hong Kong. It would be sensible to exploit this avenue for rolling back injustice. It is more likely to lead somewhere than protests that test the boundaries of the law and alienate the public.