The grown-up mainland children of Hong Kong parents will be allowed to apply to live in the city from April under a new immigration arrangement announced yesterday.
Until now, they have been prevented from doing so by controversial right of abode laws.
The new policy, unveiled by Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong in Beijing, effectively brings to an end the decade-long right of abode saga, which has split families, created a series of landmark legal rulings and sparked violent protests.
Right of abode campaigners said the new arrangement had come too late for many, as their parents had died in the intervening years. They also called for an apology from Hong Kong officials who blocked so many from having right of abode for so long.
The clamp on children of Hongkongers born on the mainland was imposed amid top-level government concerns that if they were allowed in, the city would be swamped.
However, now, as the 150-a-day quota under the existing one-way permit system is regularly not filled and the lure of Hong Kong is not so great as the mainland prospers, observers wonder how many people will apply under the new rules.
In 1999, Hong Kong's courts granted mainland children born to Hong Kong parents the right of residency. The government controversially estimated that 1.67 million migrants could flood the city, which led to Hong Kong seeking a reinterpretation of the Basic Law by Beijing to overrule the court judgment.
Yesterday, in a marked reduction of the figures, the security minister said the number of eligible applicants would be around the 'tens of thousands'.
'We need to consider the mainland's booming economy; many of the adult children might not apply since they might have a better life on the mainland,' Lee said.
A government official familiar with the new arrangement said the number of eligible applicants 'would not be astronomical' and surely under half a million.
Under the new arrangement, the grown-up children of Hongkongers born on the mainland who were under 14 when their natural father or mother obtained a Hong Kong identity card before November 1, 2001, will be eligible to apply for right of abode.
Mainland public security will open a new channel for them to apply to be reunited with their families. There will be a quota of about 80,000 for adult-child applicants - the unused quota in the past decade from the existing one-way permit scheme.
The grown-up children of Hong Kong parents are not eligible to apply for one-way permits under this scheme unless their parents have special needs.
Four years ago, a think-tank suggested Hong Kong and mainland authorities make better use of the unused quota to deal with the city's changing population and falling birth rate.
Under the new arrangement, the first batch of applicants will cover those aged under 14 when their parents obtained an ID card on or before December 31, 1979. This means the first batch will be as young as 33.
The Hong Kong government believes it will take about six months for applicants to get through the process.
Jackie Hung Ling-yu, who has been helping abode claimants for about 10 years, said the new arrangement came too late.
'Many parents and adult children have suffered a lot and some have even died for this amid fighting for right of abode. Government officials, particularly former security minister Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, owe them an apology,' he said.
Eligible children had to be this age or younger when their parents received Hong Kong ID cards: 14