Hong Kong’s last governor, Chris Patten, was recently in town to promote his new book, First Confession. Patten is a charming, energetic and experienced politician, and his polished speeches hold great fascination for his audience. This time, he praised Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor for doing a better job than Leung Chun-ying, and eulogised the new generation for adhering to their principles.
Patten’s pertinent comments on Hong Kong’s political environment have won him worldwide applause. However, at a lunch organised by the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation, Patten seemed rather baffled by an issue raised by veteran democrat Emily Lau Wai-hing. She asked if Patten, a member of the House of Lords, would raise in Parliament the issue of giving the right of abode to British National (Overseas) passport holders. Patten promised to raise the matter when the issue of whether to count foreign students in the government’s immigration target was tabled again, but also reminded Lau not to overestimate the influence of the upper chamber. The underlying message was that there was nothing he could do.
The BN(O) issue has inflicted a long-lasting and grievous wound on the Hong Kong people. Originally, there were about 3 million British Dependent Territories Citizen (BDTC) passport holders (including people born before July 1, 1997 in Hong Kong, and naturalised British subjects). However, due the handover, the British government amended its constitution, changing the BDTC classification to BN(O), who do not have the right of abode in the UK.
The British government went back on its word and betrayed the Hong Kong people. In fact, after the June 4 incident in 1989, due to strong community pressure, it reluctantly granted 50,000 right of abode places for Hong Kong families. But people instead flocked to emigrate to the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and so on. The arrogant attitude of the UK government caused an apathetic response to the “right of abode” scheme and it ended up being underutilised.
The idea of a BN(O) passport is absurd. It comes with the same cover as any British passport but can be used only as a travel document. Holders have no right of abode in the UK and are not treated equally when passing through immigration. I visited Britain recently and, from my observation, British customs officers have absolutely no idea what a BN(O) passport is. They direct holders to the European passports line, where they have to queue at the “foreigners” counter.
If Patten truly cared about Hong Kong people, as he claims, he would spend more effort fighting for equality on behalf of BN(O) passport holders. In fact, in February 1997, now-deceased House of Lords member Lord Avebury put forward a private member’s bill – the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act – proposing that BN(O) passport holders who did not hold Chinese citizenship could register to be British citizens. At that time, Patten strongly urged the government to support the bill, which was subsequently passed. In 2009, Lord Avebury proposed an amendment to the British Nationality Act Section 4B, that any BN(O) who involuntarily lost the citizenship of other countries would automatically become a British citizen. The proposal was accepted by the Labour government.
In the past 50 years, tens of thousands of Hongkongers have gone to Britain to study, bringing huge economic benefits to the country. However, this summer, students bound for Britain were stranded in Hong Kong due to some errors made by the visa service provider. It has been a painful procedure.
It has been 20 years since Hong Kong’s return to China; “one country, two systems” has been deformed and the promised “ high degree of autonomy” has diminished. The Chinese government has been acting against the Sino-British Joint Declaration, sparking concerns among Hong Kong people. Many have already applied for extensions of their BN(O) passports as a last resort. Patten should keep his promise and join hands with other House of Lords members who are concerned about Hong Kong people’s rights, to allow BN(O) passport holders to be treated equally with other British passport holders. This is the least Patten can do.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.