Stemming inundation of Hong Kong overrides perceived loss of judicial autonomy

Michael Chugani says the sensitivities over HK's 'mainlander invasion' is stifling a much-needed public debate on the matter

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 3:23am

Something astonishing happened to me on Christmas Eve at Central MTR station at about lunchtime. I had to struggle to hear Cantonese. Most everyone in the packed station was speaking Putonghua. Later, I mentioned this phenomenon to my lunch companions - two pro-establishment legislators and a well-known political commentator. They smirked and jokingly said all the Hongkongers had fled town for the holidays and so the city had been "mainlandised" by a Christmas flood of compatriots.

Indeed it had. That same evening brought additional culture shock when disgruntled friends of mine had to compete for taxis with mainlanders near Lan Kwai Fong.

In case it hasn't hit you yet, Hong Kong is undergoing a stark transformation. It hit my sister right away when she visited from the US recently. Her husband found it startling every time he stepped out of his Tsim Sha Tsui hotel into the throngs of mainlanders. We often hear worried locals say they don't want Hong Kong to become like just another Chinese city. But that is exactly what is happening.

So many sensitivities surround the issue of mainlanders in Hong Kong that we, as a society, find it hard to have an honest and open debate about it. I feel uncomfortable speaking the truth about the matter. But discuss it we must. Hong Kong is bursting at the seams. Let the numbers speak for themselves. Last year 62.3 million foreign tourists visited the US. Hong Kong had 28 million mainlanders alone, and the number is steadily rising. That is unsustainable.

A public outcry forced Chief Executive C.Y. Leung to act against parallel goods traders and easier visa rules for millions more mainlanders. But he has since gone silent on the issue. To his credit, he has cracked down on the flood of mainland women giving birth here so their babies can acquire residency rights. And his administration has asked the Court of Final Appeal to seek clarification from the National People's Congress Standing Committee on abode rights for mainland babies and foreign domestic helpers under the Basic Law.

The abode rights issue is different from the flood of mainland tourists, but equally pressing. Leung's administrative steps to block mainlanders having babies here is open to legal challenge because our highest court ruled in 2001 that such babies did qualify for abode rights. And our highest court will rule in February whether foreign maids who have been here for more than seven years also qualify for permanent residency.

Opposition legislators and many in the legal community are furious with the government for asking the final appeal court to refer the matter to Beijing, arguing this robs the court of its autonomy. But what is so wrong about seeking clarification on a matter as grave as Hong Kong being possibly flooded by foreign maids and mainland babies born here? The NPC does have the right to clarify and interpret the Basic Law. What is in Hong Kong's best interest - preventing the flood or defending at all costs a perceived but unproven loss of judicial autonomy on interpreting the Basic Law?

Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host.