Patriot acts: the ramifications of renunciation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 June, 2008, 12:00am

When it was revealed last month that several of the government's newly appointed deputy ministers held foreign citizenship, some commentators were quick to question their patriotism.

In the end, and despite the fact there was no legal obligation for them to do so, a number of the deputies publicly announced they would renounce their foreign nationalities and give up the documents that have so inflamed public opinion.

The saga left many questioning what the fuss was about, and others cautioning about the slippery slope such appeals to patriotism might lead to.

But it also raised the question of why, if not strictly required by law or fleeing persecution, anyone would choose to give up their nationality.

Aside from people trying to enter the political arena, or to head up a government department, it is extremely rare for people to renounce their nationality to take up a Hong Kong passport.

'The only other people I know of who have done that are very wealthy Americans trying to escape double taxation,' said lawyer Michael Vidler, of Vidler & Co.

Legislator and former radio host Albert Cheng King-hon had to give up his Canadian citizenship to run for election in 2004. 'Normally it takes between six months and a year,' Mr Cheng said.

'The applications are handled in a town called Sydney, in Nova Scotia. It is in the boondocks and they have a very small staff,' he said by way of explanation.

Through contacts in Ottawa, he managed to get his sorted out within 12 days. However, he claims that is not a record. Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Frederick Ma Si-hang had his turned around in just 10 days after the Hong Kong government intervened and sent a special request to the Canadian authorities, Mr Cheng said.

Canada requires that to renounce your citizenship you must prove that you are eligible and intending to take citizenship somewhere else; are not living in Canada; are over 18; understand the consequences of renunciation; and don't pose a security threat. Even then, there is no guarantee the renunciation will be allowed.

The United States warns citizens that they will lose all the privileges of citizenship if they renounce, and that in some cases renunciation will not be recognised.

There are also a number of things citizens can do that may result in automatic withdrawal of citizenship. These include joining another country's armed forces, swearing allegiance to a foreign power and being convicted of treason.

Thailand, according to someone who recently gave up citizenship, makes it difficult to renounce it.

Apparently the process, which can take up to five years - six months if you walk it through yourself, the source says - needs to be signed off on by the king, or one of his delegates.

Australia would seem to recognise the need for some people to relinquish their nationality because of the requirements of other countries. It allows people to reapply for citizenship if they have had no choice but to relinquish the first time around.

Someone who gives up his citizenship on a whim, however, may not find that avenue available.

What all the states have in common is that people wishing to renounce must show they already have, or are immediately qualified to receive, foreign citizenship.

'We will not withdraw citizenship if you're going to become stateless,' said Fiona McCulloch, consul for immigration matters at the Australian consulate.

She said the number of applications for renunciation of Australian citizenship received in Hong Kong in the past year was an 'insignificant number'.

Hong Kong's Immigration Department processed 52 declarations of change of nationality last year, down from 64 in 2006.

And while China does not recognise dual nationality for any of its citizens, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in May 1996 opened the door for Hongkongers to carry passports from other countries subsequent to the resumption of sovereignty in 1997.

'Chinese nationals of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region with right of abode in foreign countries may, for the purpose of travelling to other countries and territories, use the relevant documents issued by the foreign governments,' the Standing Committee said.

As such, the foreign passport is viewed as nothing more than a travel document.

So a person born to parents, one or both of whom is a Hong Kong Chinese national, can be considered a Chinese citizen and therefore be eligible for an HKSAR passport. He or she may also be eligible, depending on his parents' situations, for a second travel document from a different country.

Anyone else wishing to obtain an HKSAR passport must first become a Chinese citizen, and China's Nationality Law, incorporated into Hong Kong's Basic Law, dictates that such people 'shall not retain foreign nationality'.

The Hong Kong passport, by dint of the SAR having control over its own immigration policies, entitles the bearer to visa-free entry to many countries around the world. So for people whose own countries might not get the same privileges, it might be a convenient document to have.

But Jacques Scherman, a South African who travels a lot on business, said that while his country's past had led to major visa hassles in regards to crossing international frontiers, he did not believe that was a strong enough reason to give up his nationality.

'What I would like to be able to do is to travel on a different passport,' Mr Scherman said. 'I wouldn't renounce my citizenship. It's a passport inconvenience rather than a national-identity issue.'

It was common practice for countrymen in a similar position to delve back into their family trees looking for a way to obtain a passport for a second country.

'A passport is really just a travel document,' Mr Scherman said. 'I think the people who equate only having one passport with being a patriot are missing the point, really.'

Mr Vidler agrees, saying possession of a foreign passport is not an indication of loyalty to that country.

'This sort of approach is getting very close to xenophobia,' he said.

He noted the massive number of people who applied for foreign passports after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and in the lead-up to the return of Hong Kong sovereignty to China. The city was full of very successful people who retained foreign travel documents, he said.

'We are an extremely international city, so why would you want to do yourself out of such a wide pool of very talented people? It might be an issue if you have to be vetted for a sensitive defence or intelligence position. But otherwise, shouldn't we be aiming for talent?'