Let’s be clear; there is no such thing as a Hong Kong citizen. Widely used for decades by those who should have known better, this term causes great – and increasingly dangerous – confu­sion. The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declara­tion specifically referred to people living in Hong Kong as “inhabitants” or “residents” – not citizens. The people, along with the territory, were to be trans­ferred to China in 1997. And so it came to pass.

Hong Kong passports, whether Special Administrative Region or British National (Overseas), are travel documents; the SAR passport is available only to citizens of the People’s Republic of China. BN (O) does not confer consular protection in Hong Kong or China, though – interestingly – these passport holders are routinely assisted in Taiwan.

Neither document confers “Hong Kong citizenship” as Hong Kong is not a sovereign state. Feeling oneself to be a citizen (of an imagined nation) is not the same as being one.

By the early 20th century, numerous Chinese emigrants had become British subjects, either by birth in Burma, the Straits Settlements, the West Indies and elsewhere, or by registration. Most remained culturally Chinese but enjoyed a convenient extra nationality, which was especially expedient if they were living in China. Arbitrary enforcement of laws, extortion and intimidation because of presumed wealth and overseas connections all made them vulnerable.

Extraterritorial rights in China for British subjects – in force until 1943 – meant that the Western power’s treaty rights could shelter them if necessary; in effect, they could be Chinese when it suited them and British when it didn’t. And in this respect, little has changed. The main difference today is that power has shifted; China’s unquestioned economic (and in consequence, political) clout ensures that diplomatic protests over Chinese nationals holding foreign passports who are detained in China seldom get far.

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Post-Joint Declaration, legions of Hongkongers acquired overseas residency rights, mostly in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. High-priced citizenship was obtained, generally via investment visas, by “emigrants” who returned permanently to Hong Kong after­wards, yet wanted the convenience – and presumed safeguards – of a Western pass­port. About half the current Hong Kong Chinese population either have overseas passports themselves, or parents, spouses, children or siblings who do.

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As the vast majority also maintained their Home Return Permit issued by China, they retained Chinese citizenship, and implicitly recognised that fact by keeping their permits current. By the 1990s, Western governments were rapidly storing up trouble for the future, a fact far-sighted diplomats privately acknowledged.

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Straightforward renunciation processes have long existed, through which Hong Kong permanent residents of Chinese descent who hold a foreign passport can ensure they are no longer regarded as Chinese nationals by China. After renunciation, they are no longer entitled to a Home Return Permit – and the easy China travel it provides; instead they need to apply for an entry visa like any other foreigner. And like any other foreigner, they are entitled to, and get, full consular protection from their country of citizenship while in China.

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The stereotypical Hong Kong Chinese approach, however, is to want things both ways and wail loudly about the manifest unfairness when required to take binding personal choices with potentially incon­venient consequences. People who sedu­lously let one know that they are “really” a Canadian (or whatever) get very rattled when reminded that because Hong Kong is an integral sovereign territory of China, they, like it or not, are Chinese citizens as far as the Chinese authorities are concerned, unless and until they formally rescind their Chinese nationality.

The cognitive dissonance becomes too much for many to process, and a temperamental, “what could you possibly know anyway!” outburst usually shuts down any further rational discussion.