Abode rules have served HK well

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 August, 2011, 12:00am


Right of abode, along with democratic development, must rank as one of the most controversial issues to have dogged Hong Kong in the past quarter of a century.

Shortly after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the future of Hong Kong, right of abode was placed on the agenda of the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group, a meeting group of the Chinese and British governments established to ensure smooth arrangements for the transfer of sovereignty.

The Joint Declaration, and subsequently the Basic Law, a constitutional document enacted by the National People's Congress, set out in broad terms six categories of residents who would enjoy the right of abode in Hong Kong. A detailed elaboration of the conditions for abode, under these broad categories, would have necessitated incorporation of intricate provisions of the Immigration Ordinance in the Basic Law, which would have been inappropriate in principle and a non-starter in practice.

It did not take long for experts on both sides to recognise that tiny Hong Kong could be overwhelmed by tens of thousands of immigrants from mainland China and other parts of the region seeking a better life if the provisions of the Basic Law were to be applied literally, granting the right of abode to, for example, any Chinese national born in Hong Kong. The two governments soon reached agreement to establish an expert group to discuss how the detailed provisions governing the acquisition of the right of abode in Hong Kong would be fleshed out in the Immigration Ordinance.

There is nothing racist or discriminatory in the provisions governing the acquisition of the right of abode in the ordinance. Take the provisions governing 'ordinary residence' in Hong Kong. The relevant provisions exclude those categories of residents who are never intended to be accepted as permanent residents of Hong Kong, such as contract workers brought in under specific schemes to augment the shortage of a particular category of workers - for example, foreign domestic helpers, consular staff, people in custody, members of the People's Republic garrison in Hong Kong, and officials of the central government posted to work in Hong Kong.

The provisions are colour-blind. Chinese residents not intended to be part of the permanent population are precluded from becoming 'ordinarily resident' irrespective of the length of their stay, in the same way as contract workers or consular staff.

If Hong Kong's Immigration Ordinance is regarded as discriminatory in any way, the prime target of its 'discrimination' are immigrants from the mainland. Purely out of concern about the enormity of numbers, whereas any foreign national can bring his wife with him after being given permission to live here, wives from the mainland have to queue up in the mainland waiting for their turn to settle in Hong Kong in accordance with a strictly implemented daily quota. So do children from mainland China. Another important principle to bear in mind is that the arrangements for acquiring the right of abode in Hong Kong after 1997 are designed to mirror the arrangements before reunification. As many Britons and older Hong Kong residents would remember, for reasons shared by many immigration authorities around the world - namely, to avoid a nation or territory of limited resources being overwhelmed by uncontrollably large numbers of immigrants - since the 1960s, progressively stricter immigration controls and nationality requirements have been imposed on those seeking entry to and the right of abode in Britain, and, by extension, in the various British dependent territories.

As Britain tightened up its immigration control and nationality provisions to confer British nationality - and hence the right of abode in Britain - only on those residents most closely connected with it by birth, descent, or residence, Hong Kong followed suit. Before 1997, a British national born in Hong Kong would only acquire the right of abode in Hong Kong if at least one parent was settled in Hong Kong or had the right of abode. Likewise, a worker brought in under a special, tailor-made contract would never be regarded as 'ordinarily resident'.

Such schemes introduced by the Hong Kong government to meet Hong Kong's need for special types of labour are no different from schemes introduced by other governments, such as the guest worker scheme for Mexican labourers introduced by the US government in one form or another over the decades to augment its shortage of farm and other manual labour.

In economic terms, for as long as such contracts are entered into voluntarily and to the mutual benefit of the parties concerned, there is no question of unfairness or discrimination.

On the other hand, if controls are not in place to ensure a proper balance between the supply and demand for a limited quantity of resources, divisiveness, recriminations and societal chaos would only ensue, to the disadvantage of all those concerned - whether employers or employees in any labour scheme.

The right-of-abode provisions have been in place for decades. They have served Hong Kong, and their guest workers, well and should be respected and honoured as they are - no more or less.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chairwoman of the New People's Party. She led the British side to the Sino-British Expert Group on Right of Abode