This lamentable chapter must never be repeated

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 March, 2008, 12:00am

A lamentable chapter in Hong Kong's post-handover history has ended with the Court of Final Appeal's ruling against 14 mainlanders seeking the right of abode in the city. Their final avenue for appeal having been exhausted, they must now abide by the law and return home. They are among thousands of mainlanders who came to Hong Kong seeking the right to stay under the Basic Law.

The mini-constitution contains a clause stating that the children of Hong Kong permanent residents have the right of abode. Its wording appears straightforward and the Court of Final Appeal dealt with it accordingly in 1999, ruling in favour of a person whose case was similar to that of the applicants. The government, claiming the decision could prompt mainland residents to flood the city, sought an interpretation of the clause by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, which nullified the Court of Final Appeal's judgment.

Passions were stirred. The legal community was split, with many lawyers seeing the interpretation as an affront to the foundation of our common-law system. It took several years for confidence in our courts' independence from the influence of socialist law to be restored. Meanwhile, thousands of abode seekers who felt cheated by the interpretation continued to press their case by mounting rowdy protests. In one demonstration inside Immigration Tower in 2000 that went horribly wrong, an abode seeker and an immigration officer were killed by a fire lit by demonstrators.

The Immigration Department and the courts have considered the arguments of remaining abode seekers that they have a right to stay. Their arguments have been rejected. We cannot help but feel pity for these people. Yesterday's ruling has obliterated a decade of hopes and aspirations. As unfortunate as their circumstances may be, the ruling has been given and they will have to abide by it. The injustice they sought to have remedied has behind it the force of a law they cannot challenge.

An era has ended, and the government must do its utmost to ensure it is one the likes of which will never be repeated.