Danger of going beyond the Basic Law

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2008, 12:00am

Last year, which happened to be the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen announced in his policy address two new tiers of politically appointed positions. At the beginning of his speech, he said: 'I have prepared this address with full confidence in the future of Hong Kong.'

Well, even though most people say that 'one country, two systems' has worked well in practice over the past decade, the question of confidence in the future remains. This was made clear when it turned out that, of the eight deputy ministers selected by the government, five had foreign nationality.

This fact is not a reflection on their commitment to Hong Kong. It is simply a reflection of political reality and of the history of this community. And it is regrettable that so much pressure was put on them that they all caved in and gave up their foreign passports.

In the 1980s and 1990s, after it became clear that Britain was indeed departing and leaving the people of Hong Kong - including British nationals who had been deprived over the years of their citizenship rights - to the tender mercies of the communist government in Beijing, something like half a million people uprooted themselves from their homes here and emigrated overseas, mostly to Canada but also to Australia, the United States and other countries.

And let us not forget the 50,000 households who received right of abode in the UK in the form of full British passports, which were issued with the idea of anchoring professionals and other key people in Hong Kong by giving them the confidence to stay.

In time, a good number of those who left, returned to Hong Kong. They, after all, had not left because they were looking for a better life overseas. They left as political refugees and not as economic migrants. Many returned after having spent the requisite number of years abroad in order to obtain a foreign passport. And, having obtained their insurance policy, they returned.

Today, the returnees are a great asset to Hong Kong. They are people who have had international exposure and who have social and business contacts overseas that are of vital importance to Hong Kong.

And, of course, when they brought their families back, they brought back young people who had grown up in Toronto, Sydney or other cities who can make an invaluable contribution to Hong Kong in every realm, if only they are allowed to do so.

Hong Kong now has a substantial number of native English speakers, often bilingual, who can help maintain Hong Kong as an international city. With a foreign passport in their pocket, these people can afford to live in Hong Kong knowing that, in the unlikely event of things going badly wrong, they can always get on a plane and go to another country.

Even though it is now 24 years since the Joint Declaration was signed, the same reasoning still holds. Many people still believe it is only prudent to have a foreign passport so that, if the worst came to the worst, they could get themselves and their families out.

This does not mean that they don't care about Hong Kong. In fact, because they have less reason to fear for their personal safety, they can do more for Hong Kong and not be anxious of what they should do or say whenever a politically sensitive issue comes up.

The Basic Law requires principal officials, that is, ministers, to be Chinese nationals. But there seems little reason to make requirements that go beyond the Basic Law. It is similar to the opposition to the Article 23 national security legislation five years ago, when it was argued that the government was going beyond the Basic Law's requirements.

This time, it is not the government putting pressure on the deputy ministers and their assistants to go beyond the Basic Law. Ironically, it is primarily politicians from the pan-democratic camp who are insisting on political correctness. This is going too far.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. frank.ching@scmp.com