Most post-colonial societies allowed former colonials who wanted to stay on to do so, and formalising such provision was a key part of independence negotiations. As the large number of ex-colonials of various ethnicities still resident in Hong Kong indicates, not everyone packed up and went “home” (wherever that might once have been) when the British flag was lowered in 1997.
In the case of the subcontinent, numerous British residents were still scattered across India and Pakistan well into the 1980s. Today, however, more than 70 years after Indian independence in 1947, few Raj-era survivors remain.
In Malaya, British citizens ordinarily resident there, and who were in the country on the night of independence, in August 1957, were given leave to stay permanently. Some still reside in Malaysia under this provision, and a few became citizens. Permanent residency status later became almost impossible to obtain.
Residency sometimes continued when a negotiated political transition followed a period of violent insurgency, as happened in Indonesia. When sovereignty was transferred, in 1949, the agreement provided for Dutch civilians ordinarily resident in the former Netherlands East Indies to remain permanently, if they wished. They could also apply for Indonesian citizenship, and many did, but there was no compulsion to do so.
Private property rights for resident foreigners were constitutionally guaranteed, and business life could continue more or less as before. And for the first few years, little changed.
But as the Indonesian economy steadily stagnated and political life deteriorated, many Dutch nationals – in particular those with young families, whose long-term futures as a no longer privileged ethnic minority had to be considered – reassessed their position, sold up and left.
President Sukarno’s increasingly nationalistic assertiveness throughout the 1950s, and prolonged tensions over the outstanding sovereignty issue of Dutch New Guinea (later Irian Jaya, now West Papua), finally reached a nerve-racking climax in late 1957.
On December 6 of that year, all Dutch businesses and private property were suddenly nationalised, and Indonesia’s remaining Dutch citizens – numbering about 60,000, many of whom hailed from long-established, well-integrated, mixed-race families – were given a few weeks to leave. With bank accounts frozen, most left with virtually nothing beyond the personal effects they were able to carry with them. By Easter 1958, other than those who had taken Indonesian citizenship, almost no Dutch nationals remained in the country.
As the Indonesian example makes clear, “permanent resident” status can change depending on whether a newly independent country (or, in Hong Kong’s case, the nation into which the former British colony was absorbed in 1997) chooses to maintain the status quo. In modern Singapore, for example, “permanent” resident status must now be periodically renewed, and can be easily revoked.
Of all these post-colonial arrangements, Hong Kong’s current position on permanent residency for foreigners most closely parallels that of Indonesia in the early ’50s. In the years after the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, numerous foreign nationals became Chinese citizens by naturalisation. Anecdotal evidence suggests that far fewer have applied in the past five years or so.
As Indonesia illustrates, continued residency rights for foreign nationals is essentially a goodwill gesture by the incoming sovereign power that – whatever previous transitional agreements may have guaranteed – can be revoked when their continued presence is no longer considered sufficiently worthwhile to justify the periodic nuisance it creates.
And as Hong Kong is ever more aware, local laws can be – and increasingly are – “reinterpreted” with changing political expediency. Only the most wilfully optimistic still believe that the Hong Kong administration retains much meaningful influence over matters that touch upon broader national interests. And local permanent residency status for potentially troublesome foreign nationals is one of them.