Heart of the matter

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 June, 2008, 12:00am

In a matter of two weeks, Hong Kong politics has been transformed. All five of the eight newly appointed undersecretaries of government have been persuaded, or rather compelled, one by one, to give up their foreign passports. The last three announced doing so on June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Beijing.

Ironically, right after the Tiananmen incident 19 years ago, Hong Kong was embroiled in such a deep confidence crisis that even many democrats joined the chorus of outcry for the British government to issue full British passports - as distinct from the British National (Overseas) passport that did not confer the right of abode in Britain - to Hong Kong people.

At that time, seeking a foreign passport as political insurance was regarded as a normal thing to do; nobody felt indignation. In early 1990, London acceded to pressure by granting British nationality to 50,000 Hong Kong households. Many professionals, in particular the so-called sensitive ones like senior civil servants, lawyers and journalists, benefited.

Indeed, nationality is as old a controversy as that of Hong Kong's transition to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. After the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, many business and professional elites felt so restless about the city's future that they sought a foreign passport, at least for their families. During the drafting of the Basic Law, the mainstream view, both locally and among mainland officials, was to allow non-Chinese permanent residents to seek election to the legislature, on the basis that Hong Kong is an international city, and citizenship rights should be defined not by nationality but by permanent residency.

However, in order to symbolise Chinese sovereignty, it was specifically stipulated in the Joint Declaration, and subsequently in the Basic Law, that the chief executive and principal officials must be Chinese nationals without the right of foreign abode. It was only after London introduced the British nationality scheme to Hong Kong that Beijing responded by imposing the requirement in the Basic Law, promulgated in April 1990, that no more than 20 per cent of legislators could have foreign nationality or right of abode.

Thus, legally speaking, there is nothing wrong with undersecretaries and political assistants holding a foreign passport. However, after the past two weeks, it has become crystal clear that the public expects these political appointees to firmly declare their national allegiance by not holding any foreign nationality. The pre-1997 constitutional logic is being rewritten by new political sentiments.

By submitting to such public expectations, or pressure, those political appointees surrendering their foreign passport have collectively helped to create a precedent that those who follow cannot ignore, else they risk being labelled disloyal or untrustworthy. It remains to be seen whether this surge in political patriotism will last until the Legislative Council election in September. Will even those candidates contesting functional constituencies that allow foreign passport holders to be elected (namely the business and some professional sectors) also face public demands to pass the nationality test?

Public sentiment today is certainly very different from that of a generation ago, in 1989. Despite comments from time to time that Hong Kong people lack patriotism, the message from the current nationality saga, as well as the strong nationalistic reaction generated by the Olympic torch march and the Sichuan earthquake, have pointed to a new setting. The writing on the wall is clear - many Hong Kong people, including those once sympathetic to holding a foreign passport, are no longer shy about asserting their Chinese nationality and expecting their fellow compatriots to do the same.

In the heat of the nationality debate, though, one should beware of the danger of public sentiment getting too whipped up, to the extent that any resident holding a foreign passport is regarded as having less commitment and loyalty towards Hong Kong. The fact remains that many Hongkongers - between half a million and 1 million - hold foreign passports.

If their loyalty is cast in doubt, even though they have contributed to all walks of life, including civil society groups, professional and business bodies, government advisory committees and even political parties, we might risk alienating many do-gooders and doing a disservice to this city.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think-tank