What, exactly, is the status of permanent residents in Hong Kong? Legislator Howard Young has provided a timely reminder of this question by tabling a motion at the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference to give permanent residents the same ease of access to the mainland as that of Hong Kong's Chinese citizens.
Hong Kong permanent residents are treated like all other foreigners when crossing the border and have to apply for a visa. This is one of several oddities in a system that raises questions about the status of permanent residents.
The history of Hong Kong, combined with the unusual immigration laws of the People's Republic, give rise to ambiguities that need to be resolved.
Hong Kong now has, in effect, three tiers of permanent residency. At the top of the tree are Chinese citizens who hold either Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and or British National Overseas (BNO) passports and have a three-star designation on their identity cards. The BNO status, a relic of the colonial period, does not come with a real passport but is what amounts to a travel document that is increasingly redundant; it will die out as current holders disappear and no one else is allowed to apply for this document.
In the second tier are Hong Kong Chinese residents who have acquired other nationalities but nevertheless retain their three-star identity card status and can apply for the re-entry permits that provide easy access to the mainland. In theory, or maybe even in practice (but this has not been tested in the courts), they may not be entitled to this form of dual nationality (the Basic Law is vague on this point but Chinese law specifically prohibits dual nationality). If they go to the mainland on their re-entry permits, they are treated as Chinese citizens regardless of any foreign nationality they may possess.
The third tier is filled by a variety of people with permanent resident status, some of whom belong to families originating in South Asia, and have been resident in Hong Kong far longer than more recent immigrants from the mainland. They are joined by others who come from overseas and have acquired permanent residence by virtue of living in Hong Kong for seven years.
But this does not apply to domestic helpers, who are barred from becoming permanent residents no matter how long they live in the city.
What remains unclear is how people in this third tier can graduate to 'three-star status'. The crucial factor here seems to be race. In theory, this is not the case because China's 1980 Nationality Law makes provision for granting nationality to those who have settled in China or 'have other legitimate reasons' (a staggeringly vague legal definition). But, in practice, the important criteria for acquiring citizenship is having 'near relatives' who are Chinese nationals.
On the mainland itself, home to 55 ethnic minorities, no more than a handful of non-Chinese immigrants have been granted citizenship; this is mainly reserved for rewarding long-time foreign communists for their loyalty. In Hong Kong, there are also some instances of non-Chinese being granted citizenship but this, it appears, has only happened by virtue of a close connection with ethnic Chinese family members. Citizenship has been granted to very few members of ethnic minority groups who were born here and are from families with generations of residence in Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, ethnic Chinese who live in Hong Kong but come from other countries appear to have little difficulty acquiring these three stars. Indeed, a number of them, such as Yeoh Eng-kiong, the former health and welfare secretary who was born overseas, have acquired Chinese nationality and served in high office.
There is something inherently objectionable about a nationality policy based on race. Yet, despite the difficulties for non-ethnic Chinese to acquire citizenship, Hong Kong is generous to permanent residents. In most jurisdictions, permanent foreign residents do not have voting rights; in some they are denied rights of property ownership and have limited rights to own companies. This is not the case here, where the only significant difference between a permanent resident and a Hong Kong Chinese citizen is the right of citizenship and, in practical terms, the right of free access to the mainland. Mr Young is trying to address this issue at the CPPCC but, in so doing, he has raised concerns over whether this would serve to blur the boundary between Hong Kong and the mainland. Others believe expediency is required and that the 'one country, two systems' concept will not be undermined.
A minefield surrounds issues of race, ethnicity and citizenship, and the Hong Kong and central governments seem to think that the best to pick their way through this treacherous territory is to maintain ambiguity; thus, a blind eye is turned towards Hong Kong Chinese citizens who hold other nationalities while permanent residents who have made their homes here have no precise means of knowing whether they can become citizens. Maybe this is a kind of constructive ambiguity - but it's a very strange way of determining the right to citizenship.
Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur