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"Protect Our Borders:" Immigration and Identity in Post-War Hong Kong

Michael Houf


     One of the most contentious issues facing many nations throughout the world concerns immigration, naturalization and citizenship.  According to historian Adam McKeown, "border control is a foundation of sovereignty" which entails a power to "unilaterally regulate human entries."1  This issue of sovereignty and border control is so important though, that "proposals for the international management of migration represents the densest collaboration of scholars, bureaucrats and activists working toward the refinement of ever more sophisticated forms of regulation."2  Yet, "controls have rarely succeeded in actually regulating movement according to their own standards and categories."3  This is due, in large part, to the fluidity of movement and reasons for movement of individuals and populations.  Whether trying to flee persecution in their homelands as political refugees or escaping poverty many look to Western nations as places to fulfill their dreams of a peaceful existence and economic prosperity.  Within the United States, debate has been wide spread over immigration, both legal and illegal.  Some come to the United States with the intent of giving birth to children who will automatically become citizens which will afford them prestige of having children who are dual citizens and offer those children greater choices in life.  For example, dual citizenship is considered the "ultimate gift that South Korean parents can give their newborns."  These parents, who tend to be "well educated and upper-class" are "motivated by a desire to get their children into American schools . . . and in the case of boys, to keep them out of the 26-month mandatory military service."4  Others come hoping to secure abode through so called "anchor babies."  Still others simply cross the border and begin a residence outside the law.  Debate is especially impassioned in the United States on both sides of the political aisle.  The more extreme positions called for range of measures from amnesty to expelling all illegal immigrants and closing the boarders.  With the rise of the Peoples' Republic of China, Hong Kong faced many of the same issues and decisions about borders, security and citizenship. 

     Under the specter of the Chinese Communist victory in the late 1940's, the Hong Kong government found that it needed to rethink and redefine citizenship within the colony.  As the government came to a new definition, it acknowledged that it had to foster a stable environment for its population and create a sense of a shared stake in the colony's future.  The influx of refugees fleeing the instability of mainland China during the conflict between the Chinese Communists and the Guomindang necessitated creative thinking about population levels and the question of citizenship.    

     Until the formation of the People's Republic, Hong Kong had a virtual open door policy with the neighboring province of Guangdong.  Chinese residents had virtually complete freedom of movement between the colony and the mainland in regards to commuting for employment (to Hong Kong) and the visitation of family.  The vast number of refugees seeking entry into Hong Kong negated the desirability of continuing that policy.  In order to keep population at a manageable level and not allow the colony to be filled with potential subversives, the Hong Kong government had to develop new immigration controls through the Immigrants Control Bill (1949) and the Expulsion of Undesirables Ordinance (1949).  Concurrently, by the reformation of the Hong Kong Defense Force and by widening eligibility for service, the colonial government created a sense of ownership of the colony's future among its old and new citizens.  These efforts culminated in the creation of a new status of citizenship in Hong Kong, that of "Belonger."  This new definition of citizenship then gave the colony a valuable tool for population control and insured minimum social services without sliding to an abyss of entitlement programs.

     Hong Kong emerged as the Qing Dynasty declined and England solidified its position as a global empire.  After the British victory in the First Opium War (1839–1842) China and England signed the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 and ratified it in 1843.  The treaty stipulated that China open its ports to foreign trade, permit foreign consular jurisdiction over foreign nationals (extraterritoriality), and officially cede the island of Hong Kong in perpetuity to Great Britain.5  In the 1860 Convention of Beijing, which ended the Second Opium War (1858–1860), Britain received further concessions from the Qing Dynasty, including the southern part of the Kowloon peninsula (south of Boundary Street) and Stonecutter's Island.6  Settlement in the colony centered around what was known as the city of Victoria, which occupied the narrow northern coastal strip on the western part of Hong Kong Island, and the west coast of Kowloon.7  To complete the territory which is now Hong Kong, the United Kingdom capitalized on China's defeat by Japan in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895).  During the European "Scramble for Concessions" and under the Convention of 1898, Britain received the New Territories which it leased for ninety-nine years.8

     Since many of the inhabitants of the colony had been born in British territories, they were potential British subjects and, as a result, many became entitled to substantially the same privileges as British subjects residing in the United Kingdom, including the right of abode in the mother country.9  According to historian Kathleen Paul, the encompassing granting of citizenship to members of the British Empire "was designed to maintain Britain's unique position as a metropolitan motherland and to demonstrate to the world that the United Kingdom was still the center of a great commonwealth of nations . . .. "10 The impetus for the 1948 British Nationality Act (BNA) came about due to a post-war population decline in the United Kingdom and a resulting shortage of labor.  Therefor, in order to increase Britain's labor supply active recruitment of immigrants from colonial areas occurred. It also became a "means of securing Britain's role at the center of an empire/commonwealth and securing the continuing dependence of parts of that empire."11  Both purposes applied to the colony of Hong Kong and assured access to those who applied.12

     As Hong Kong's, and other colonial areas' population grew, the British government needed to narrow and restrict the eligibility of Commonwealth citizens due to increasing migration from the colonial areas to Britain. The 1948 and subsequent British nationality laws up to 1990 reflected a tiered national identity resulting in different communities of Britishness.13  As British nationality law developed, racialization produced "a hierarchy whereby British and European populations or races were regarded as superior to African and Asian."  This hierarchy based upon perceptions of "cultural, social, religious, and political distinctions in addition to physical ones" was maintained chiefly through a rigid system of "discrimination and prejudice."14    Indeed, "The associations attached to the colonial's skin color were sufficiently strong to override the presumptive rights of their legal nationality."  According to the Deputy Permanent Under Secretary at the Ministry of Labour, Sir Harold Wiles, "any scheme for the importation of coloured colonials for permanent settlement here should not be embarked upon without full understanding that this means that a coulored element will be brought in for permanent absorption into our own population."15 

     The British Government accomplished this through the imposition of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 which "codified what successive Labour and Tory Cabinets had been thinking and saying in private since the early postwar years."  British subjects became categorized into three groups, "those with jobs to go to, those with skills or experience deemed advantageous to the United Kingdom, and unskilled laborers in search of work." Numerical control concentrated on the last category.16   The focus, therefore, in Hong Kong, centered on Chinese citizens of the British dependent territory as demand for (of all things) Chinese food (and therefore Chinese cooks) became less desirable in the post-war period.17   It is important to note that before the Communist victory in China emigration out of Hong Kong to the United Kingdom did not happen on a large scale. 

      Of the vast population of Hong Kong prior to 1949, not only did the desire to emigrate overseas exist in minuscule numbers, only a small minority considered the colony their permanent home.  This minority included the British and upper class Chinese commercial elite who, for generations, lived in the colony.  However, for the vast majority of the inhabitants of the colony, both European and Chinese, Hong Kong remained simply a place for conducting business, carrying on a trade, plying a craft and making a living.  Having what might be called a "sojourner mentality," they maintained close contact with "home" located elsewhere.18

     Enabling this "sojourner mentality" was the lack of restrictions covering travel between Hong Kong and the mainland.  Most of the Chinese population of Hong Kong hailed from the adjacent province of Guangdong and within that province from localities with easy access to Hong Kong via the established communications links (bus, railroad and steamship service).  Therefore, they could spend a weekend at home and return to work in Hong Kong.  Many of them went home to celebrate the Chinese New Year and on the occasions of the Spring Festival (Ching-ming) and Double Ninth (Chung-chiu) to pay respects to the memory of the departed ancestors.  Single men went home to look for brides to marry.  Like their expatriate counterparts, many Chinese sojourners also preferred to spend their retirement in their ancestral home.19

     The absence of legal barriers between the colony and the mainland meant that two factors primarily determined the population level of Hong Kong.  Hong Kong served as a land of opportunity and as a haven for those fleeing from wars, banditry and revolutions in China.  When these advantages disappeared, the population of Hong Kong dropped drastically, as occurred during the Japanese occupation in 1941–1945, when the population stood at only approximately 650,000, (down from a pre-war figure of more than one million).20  In the light of Hong Kong's customary role as a place of refuge for people fleeing from the turmoil in China, the influx of refugees during the Civil War was not unique.  On previous occasions, when the crisis in China passed, generally, the flow of people reversed so that the population of Hong Kong returned to a more manageable level.

     After the 1949 Communist seizure of power the situation in China became one of perpetual crisis as one revolutionary movement after another was launched.  From the beginning of Communist rule, each successive development on the mainland resulted in the increase of Hong Kong's population.  Thus, no reverse flow of people occurred to reduce the population pressure of Hong Kong.  Many sought to enter Hong Kong to escape from the persecution meted out to the victims of class struggle on the mainland.  Even more sought entry simply to escape from the bleak conditions unfolding around them.  Thus, it was obvious that unless effective steps were taken to stem the tide, Hong Kong would be swamped by wave after wave of refugees.

     The history of immigrant control began during the Second World War because of the number of refugees that the Japanese conquest of China created.  Reacting to the increase in migration from China, the Hong Kong government passed new immigration laws restricting the free movement over the border between the colony and Guangdong.  The Immigration and Passports Ordinance of 1934 required persons entering Hong Kong to possess a valid passport or other suitable documents such as a certificate of origin or reentry permit.  The bill attempted to control the growing number of people fleeing the Japanese invaders and the growing conflict between the Guomindang and the Chinese Communists.  The Hong Kong government considered immigration control a necessity in the interests of health, sanitation and defense.21   During the Civil War in China, a much larger group of refugees made the necessity acute.

     In mid-1948, Governor Alexander Grantham charged the Executive Council with finding a way to slow, if not halt, the flow of refugees across the border.  The Executive Council suggested that "in view of the alarming increase in the number of Chinese entering the colony," the Hong Kong government needed new immigration controls to retard the numbers coming from mainland China and Macao.  In particular, the Executive Council advocated that "the frontier should be wired except for a few controlled crossing places," in order to funnel those coming over the border.  That movement should then be controlled by a formula "relating inward traffic to outward traffic" on a one to one ratio concerning those immigrants and travelers transported by ship and rail from Macao and Guangzhou.  The last suggestion offered the most extreme measure:  if the other measures did not meet with the desired success, then the Hong Kong Commissioner of Police should "consult with the General Officer Commander in Chief [of the Hong Kong Defense Force] regarding the closing of the frontier."22

     By the end of November 1948, the British Parliament and the Hong Kong government elected to implement all measures including closing the border between the New Territories and Guangdong completely.  Even with the new methods, Hong Kong never solved the illegal immigration problem and thousands crossed the border every day.  In order to address the current situation checkpoints were set up at the normal crossings from China.  This step became indispensable for any future efforts to implement normal immigration procedures. 

     The Immigrants Control Bill, passed in October 1949, was used to determine whether or not an individual was an "undesirable."  An individual could be declared undesirable if the person was:

diseased, maimed, blind, idiot, lunatic or decrepit not having the means of subsistence and may be hindered by his state from earning a livelihood; or B)  is unable to show that he has in his possession the means of decently supporting himself and his dependents, if any, until he obtains a livelihood; or C)  is a person likely to become a vagrant, beggar or a charge upon any public or private charitable institution; or D)  is a person suffering from a contagious disease which is loathsome or dangerous; or E)  has been removed from any country or state by the government authorities of any such country or state on repatriation for any reason whatever; or F)  is suspected of being likely to promote sedition or to cause a disturbance of the public tranquility; or G)  is unable to show that he has definite employment awaiting him or that he has a reasonable prospect of obtaining such employment; or H)  is a prostitute, a person living on the earnings of prostitution or a person of known immoral character; or I)  is not in possession of such certificates and may be necessary under the Quarantine Regulation in force; or J)  is prohibited from entering the Colony under any other enactment for the time being in force: or K)  is found squatting or dwelling in any unlawful structure or in any tunnel or cavity or in any place which has been declared by a health inspector to be or to be likely to become dangerous to health.23

      The following Immigrants Control Ordinance (1949) then enabled the Hong Kong government to enforce the guidelines for admitting or excluding people attempting to come into the colony.

     In addition to the Immigrants Control Ordinance, the Hong Kong government passed the Expulsion of Undesirables act to check the flow of refugees as well as to allow Hong Kong officials to deport illegal immigrants or members of the population no longer welcome in the colony.  The Expulsion of Undesirables Act encompassed the criteria of the Immigrants Control Ordinance and added seditious behavior and criminal acts.  It is important to note that neither of the two controls created new legislation, but built upon earlier laws which "intended to provide a reinforcement to legislation [by] giving enabling powers [to the Governor] to meet an emergency as and when it arises."24

     The emergency in question, at that moment and for future consideration, concerned the overpopulation of Hong Kong.  According to an editorial in the South China Morning Post, the act intended

less to weed out and deal with actively subversive elements, and more to reduce the colony's population in time of emergency on the grounds that we cannot afford unnecessarily to endanger public health or jeopardize public order.25

      The concentration of official opinion emphasized that the new legislation really only would come into play in times of emergency.  This attitude, reflected in a Foreign Office memoranda signed by P. D. Coats, an Undersecretary of State, who wrote that his "own feeling [was] that these [were] very suitable and necessary powers to have in reserve against a first class emergency . . . for use in the near future."26   With the population rising at such an alarming rate (over 800,000 in the immediate post-war era) both the Hong Kong government and the Foreign Office felt that the present emergency constituted a first class one.

     Under the Expulsion of Undesirables act, deportation of illegal aliens became automatic.27  The government explained the terms of deportation under the ordinance as "final and conclusive, subject to the revocation by the Governor . . . an order of expulsion, if not revoked [would] be valid for five years, whether or not the Ordinance [continued] to be in operation."28   In the line of enforcing this act, aliens could be arrested "without a warrant by any police officer and [would] be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding five thousand dollars along with deportation."29   The Ordinance did not apply, of course, to those who could prove they belonged.  In order to do that, the individual in question had to "satisfy the Competent Authority [Justice of the Peace] that he or she [was] a British subject, or that he or she [had] been ordinarily a resident in the colony for ten years or more."30   This at least began the working definition of a Hong Kong "Belonger."

     Though criticism of the Expulsion of Undesirables Ordinance arose from the population for being "too arbitrary" and capable of being put in motion against a wide range of the population, "no opposition was raised by Unofficial Members to the passage of the Bill."31   Since some of the Unofficial members of the Legislative Council were ethnically Chinese (traditionally three of the seven members), it seems surprising that there would not be at least some objection raised.  This lack of protest can be attributed to the nature of the post.  Since the Unofficial Members were appointed by, and served at the pleasure of the Governor, it is not altogether unusual that they acquiesced on this issue, preferring to wait for one that more closely fell along the lines of their constituency and one on which they might have an actual influence.

     There did exist, though, definite opposition to the expulsion of undesirables.  Many ethnic Chinese residents, who still had family in the PRC, thought that the open border policy of Hong Kong should continue unfettered and usually expressed their arguments in the op-ed sections of the local newspapers.  If the Hong Kong government closed the border, they argued that the Chinese refugees from the mainland were "deprived of their right to escape political persecution," which violated Article 14 of the United Nations Proclamation on Human Rights which provided that "everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."  Otherwise, the only individuals that escaped the Communist regime were those who crossed the border undetected.  Since the policy violated the article, "the restrictions which the Hong Kong government placed upon refugees who would enter its territory [were] obviously not in accord with England's traditional respect for human rights, even though one can understand the situation which had brought about their enforcement."32

     Many who favored the measures did not sympathize with the plight of the refugees.  One resident at least (who probably mirrored the feelings of a sizable amount of the ex-patriate population) felt that the burden of the refugees should not fall on the colony.  In a letter to the editor of the South China Morning Post, "Wakeup" expressed his concern for the hardship placed on the colony and his desire for Hong Kong to concentrate on its "legal residents" who, to him, would more than likely be those who also held British citizenship.  "Wakeup" queried "why Hongkong should be asked to educate a transient population from a country—or any country—which does nothing for its own.  Hong Kong should first of all look after its own . . . a large number of whom fought for the Colony, and whose parents, and children, . . . are in a bad way."33  Clearly, whichever side of the issue the residents and officials of the colony supported, all would have to agree that if the legislation were to be enacted fairly, some type of definition of who belonged in Hong Kong had to be determined.  Up to this point in the colony's history, a truly formalized policy had yet to be articulated.

     While preventing undesirables from entering and maintaining residence in the colony became important, perhaps inculcating a sense of vested interest among a population of "sojourners" should have received greater emphasis and planning.  The creation of the Hong Kong Defense Force (HKDF) went a long way toward this process considering the potential threat from the mainland and of dissension with the colony.  Perceiving the crux of the matter, Lord Waleran, who served as a wing commander in the Royal Air Force, on February 13, 1949, made the insightful remark, "the only way to get an army large enough to hold that perimeter is by recruiting an army of loyal Chinese fellow citizens in Hong Kong."34   A large army comprised of loyal Chinese citizens of Hong Kong had never existed before in the colony.  However, something comparable did materialize, the HKDF.

     Though disbanded after World War II, in light of the approaching crisis on the mainland, Governor Grantham ordered the reactivation of the HKDF.35   Once the Legislative Council passed the Hong Kong Defense Force Ordinance, the new local military force was generally welcomed as an "indication that the British position in Hong Kong would be maintained."  The Chinese press, though, chose to regard its reformation as more of a guarantee for "preservation of local law and order."36   The HKDF proposed to insure both.

     Membership in the Hong Kong Defense Force included all nationalities residing in Hong Kong, and the oath for soldiers was worded so that "non-British citizens may join without endangering their own national status."37   The organization became significant because total segregation of the different ethnic groups did not occur.  Nor did ethnicity play a part in the criterion for command since, "a company composed mainly of English other ranks may well have some Chinese officers or a predominantly Chinese company may have Portuguese officers," or of any other nationality.38   By 1953, the Hong Kong Defense Force became a truly multinational armed service.  The Chinese made up the majority of the force (45%), the Portuguese were the second largest (23%), followed by the British (16.5%), Eurasians (5.3%), Indians and Filipinos (2.5% respectively), Pakistani (1.8%), and the remaining 3% came from several other nationalities.39

     Whether the Hong Kong Defense Force had the capability of mounting an effective resistance to the People's Liberation Army or not, the formation of the Defense Force became one of the first steps in defining Hong Kong citizenship.  Since it opened membership to all without consideration of race, class, or nationality, the HKDF turned into a symbol of unity in an ethnically and economically diverse community.  The oath of allegiance to the HKDF did not compromise a resident's citizenship in their country of origin.  This oath laid the foundation for the creation of "Belonger" status in Hong Kong, and also defined a vested interest in residing in the colony without jeopardizing citizenship in the "Belonger's" home country.

     While the HKDF reformed, to better control the human traffic coming into Hong Kong, the previous communication links with the mainland became only partially restored after the Communist regime firmly established itself.  While direct communications with the mainland were discouraged, many Hong Kong residents had legitimate reasons for traveling there.  Others needed to travel overseas.  Such individuals had to be provided with legal documents to prove that they belonged in Hong Kong upon their return.  For this reason and for purposes of overall security, the government decided to provide all permanent residents of Hong Kong with identity cards.

     In the initial planning, the Executive Council recommended that the registration of Hong Kong persons be done in stages.  They advised that the first to register should be present holders of ration cards followed by "all other persons who wish to register as residents."  Residents then had to produce "proof that they have resided in the colony for a minimum period."40  After deliberation, the Council further advised "that the registration of persons should be applied on a compulsory basis from its inception, provision being made, however to allow of actual registration being effected progressively according to the categories to be specified by order of the Governor."  The only exemptions from registration were children under the age of twelve.41  

     From those recommendations, the Legislative Council introduced a bill requiring all persons who resided in Hong Kong to register and receive an identity card which carried their personal information.  The holder's picture, name in English and in Chinese, thumb print, as well as a serial number appeared on the identification card.  At the end of the registration drive, all those who had not been issued a card or did not reside in the colony on established visas, had to leave.  If a violator was actually arrested, deportation proceedings promptly ensued.42  A series of editorials, beginning August 4, 1949, in the South China Morning Post voiced the opinion of the majority:  "The Bill which [had] for its object the registration of people in Hong Kong normally would meet with considerable opposition," asserted the editorial.  It continued in stating that even then it could be expected to "involve some resentment," since the bill demanded the fingerprinting of residents who would in all likelihood regard it as a humiliating experience.  Although registration would cause some indignation, "registration of the colony's inhabitants [served] a useful purpose."  A registration of "British subjects would be helpful if only to crystallize loyalties and, possibly compel government to accept full responsibility for all British 'Born.'"  Unfortunately the registration did not "automatically guarantee the good intentions of the holder towards this Crown colony."43

     Although there had been some nervousness and indignation at having to register, the passage of the Registration Ordinance in August, 1949, and its ensuing accomplishment went smoothly.  Contrary to public opinion, only the thumb print, not all the fingers of one hand was required.  For the most part, this effectively removed any feeling of residents that they were processed like criminals.  Some thought registration might restrict or bind their travel and that the cost of the card would be very expensive.  These fears proved groundless.

     One potential problem to registration became the impossibility of insuring that every resident provided true and accurate information on his\her application.  For instance, elderly people sometimes reported a lower age in hope of boosting their employment prospects.  Though there could be no assurance of honesty, the actual application process turned out to be fairly simple.  The initial step sent applications to employers since they had "an economic stake in the maintenance of the peace and prosperity of the community."44  The Hong Kong government then set up six mobile photography and fingerprinting teams.  Each team went to the locations specified to process the scheduled groups.  Because of scheduling difficulties, completion of the process did not occur until the middle of 1950.

     The colony-wide registration of residents took place at about the same time as the introduction of the "passbook" system in South Africa.  The so-called passbooks played an important role in the system of control that became known as Apartheid.  Non-white South Africans were required to carry their passbooks with them at all times and produce them for inspection upon demand by a policeman.  Each persons' passbook indicated the individual's address, thus potentially restricting movement.45  The Hong Kong system of identity cards never incurred the odium of the African passbooks.  Unlike the South African passbook system, resented because it was directed only at the South African non-whites, no stigma was attached to the Hong Kong system because it was applied indiscriminately to residents of all races and nationalities.  The sole purpose of the identity cards was to validate the status of the card holder as a legitimate, permanent resident of the colony, a "Hong Kong Belonger" in technical language.  As part of this status, each card holder was assigned a card number.  This number became an integral part of each person's identity, comparable to his/her age, sex or national origin, playing a role for Hong Kong residents similar to that of the Social Security number for citizens of the United States.  The number had to be supplied when applying for a job, public housing, admission to school or other similar situations.46

     Although one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the world, the overwhelming majority of the residents of Hong Kong were of Chinese descent.  Those born in the colony and producing legitimate birth certificates could claim British citizenship.  Those who could not were presumed to be Chinese.  If it was expedient for them to get their Chinese citizenship activated (for instance to travel overseas with a Chinese passport), they could go through the established procedure of either the Nationalist or the Communist regime.  At one time, the distinction between British and Chinese nationality for the Chinese residents of the colony was of critical importance.  The British rulers of Hong Kong were color-blind, in theory.  Thus, Hong Kong Chinese of British nationality  technically received the same privileges as British subjects who resided in the United Kingdom.  They found favor in competing for government jobs, immunity from deportation for committing criminal offenses and possessed the supreme privilege of immigration to the United Kingdom.47  The tiered nationality resulting from the 1948 and subsequent BNAs though, mirrored a good deal of the existing social stratification within the colony.  According to Kathleen Paul, "white-skinned children of the empire, together with migrants of high utility, have gained entry [to the United Kingdom], while most subjects of color have been excluded."   The reason for excluding many of the inhabitants of  Hong Kong was based on the potential numbers, which were perceived as far too large for Britain to support.  This new definition of citizenship rights conflicted  with a 1949 Cabinet decision that in "Hong Kong 'every endeavor' was to be made to demonstrate that 'life under British rule was preferable to life dominated by communism.'"48

     The introduction of the identification card system, and the Hong Kong Belonger status which it created, relegated the old distinction between British and Chinese nationality to the background within the colony.  Although the distinction continued, it paled in significance when compared to the overriding difference between a Hong Kong Belonger and a non-Belonger.  Continuing decolonization on the part of the United Kingdom hastened the process.  By the early 1960's, with its former empire almost completely gone, the British Government had to do something to clean up the aftermath.  As many former British colonies in Asia and Africa received their independence, British subjects had the option of acquiring citizenship of the newly created countries or retaining British citizenship.  Many retained their British citizenship.  This held especially true for ethnic Indians or Pakistanis in Africa who had no confidence in the emergent new political order and wished to immigrate to the United Kingdom.49   As conditions worsened and as they became scapegoats in economic downturns, many of them exercised their option of relocation.  To stem the tide of Asian immigration into the United Kingdom, the British government amended its nationality laws, resulting in the creation of a class of British overseas citizenship which did not carry the right of abode in the United Kingdom, such as the aforementioned 1962, 1968, and 1982 nationality amendments.  In the process, the British government placed the Hong Kong born Chinese in the new category.  Thus, during the 1980's Hong Kong's population became divided between the 3,000,000 British subjects and 3,000,000 citizens of "China."50

     Hong Kong residents, therefore, became defined and separated into three categories; British Chinese, Chinese residents, and Hong Kong Belongers (which also included ex-patriots).  A British Chinese resident was defined as a Hong Kong Chinese person who acquired British nationality within the meaning of the British Nationality Act of 1948 and therefore did not have the right of settling in the United Kingdom.  A Chinese resident was an immigrant who was wholly or partly of Chinese race, and at any time been ordinarily resident in Hong Kong for a continuous period of not less than seven years and registered in compliance with the laws of Hong Kong.  Finally a Hong Kong Belonger was "A. A British subject who was born in Hong Kong; B. A British subject by naturalization in Hong Kong; C. A British subject by registration in Hong Kong; or D. A British subject who is or has been married to, or is the child of a person mentioned in (a,b,c) above."51  The government also considered those in the British Chinese category as Hong Kong Belongers.

     Questions of nationality for Hong Kong Chinese did not only concern the British and Hong Kong governments though.  How did the two Chinese governments of that time view the Hong Kong residents if they were not true subjects of the United Kingdom?  Both the Nationalist and Communist Governments looked on Chinese in Hong Kong as compatriots but with a difference.  As compatriots, they did not need a visa to enter PRC or ROC territory on a visit.  They did, though, have to have an entry permit which could only be issued if they had guaranteed reentry into Hong Kong.52  So by implication, colonial people such as Hong Kong Chinese could not be completely regarded as a legal person even though they had limited rights as a natural person.  Thus, a Chinese resident traveling on a Hong Kong Certificate of Identity was treated in international law as a stateless person.  He did have the reassurance of his reentry into Hong Kong as long as his Certificate of Identity remained valid.  A Hong Kong passport holder, furthermore, was entitled to the British Government's protection abroad.53

    As the specter of an eventual Communist takeover (peaceful or otherwise) of the colony loomed in the background, prudence dictated that Chinese people of means potentially needed a desirable haven in which to retreat.  British citizenship without the automatic right of abode in the United Kingdom did not nearly equal the rights of regular British subjects.  Chinese British subjects in Hong Kong were thus in the same boat as those of Chinese nationality.  They had no place to go.  Even with that predicament, the problem of refugees persisted throughout  the next two decades with the ever present possibility of a massive influx of refugees from China such as when more than 50,000 people entered Hong Kong in just one week in May 1962.54  Early inhabitants, British subjects, and refugees alike had one thing in common.  Hong Kong was their home; their destiny was tied to all those to whom the colony had reluctantly extended its hospitality by allowing them to stay.

     Questions and feelings of unease increased in the wake of the incidents occurring at Tiananmen square in 1989.  With the handover eight short years away, corporate leaders in Hong Kong began to take the lead in pushing for increased access to the right of abode in the United Kingdom.55   This lead to the 1991 British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act.  Parliament and especially conservatives feared that granting British passports to the 3.2 million eligible Hong Kong residents would reverse the previous twenty-five years of immigration policy.56   Instead, the Thatcher government, in December, 1989, announced that it would grant full citizenship to only 50,000 Hong Kong families which potentially equaled 225,000 people.  This scheme enabled those who met a strict qualification to acquire full citizenship in the United Kingdom without establishing residence there first.57  According to Political Sociologist Alvin Y. So, "most offers of British Nationality would go to corporate professionals (26,486 business managers, accountants, engineers, and computer experts) and state officials (13,300 in sensitive and professional services); only 5,814 would go to doctors, lawyers, and teachers."58  The logic of limited emigration hoped that if Hong Kong residents "knew they had a fall back position, and right of abode in another place it would discourage them from immigrating [immediately] in search of foreign passports."59   Thus, it lent stability and confidence to Hong Kong's population.

     The 1991 BNA received a mixed reaction.  While many expressed their support within Parliament and the Hong Kong Legislative and Executive councils, the former Conservative Party Chair, Norman Tebbit led some conservatives in arguing that 50,000 was too large a figure and "broke [British] election commitments on immigration."  Opponents in the British Parliament feared reprisals from the PRC government and potentially undermine the Basic Law agreement.  Finally, Labour MPs decried it as favoring only the wealthy and powerful sectors of the Hong Kong population.60

     Those who predicted a less than positive reaction from the People's Republic were quite correct.  The PRC expressed almost immediate outrage.  Beijing warned that it would treat any Hong Kong Chinese as a Chinese National even if they acquired the right of abode since, "no Hong Kong Chinese can assume a non-Chinese identity unless he or she has settle abroad and acquired foreign nationality, or has successfully renounced Chinese nationality."61   Therefore, any Hong Kong Chinese who received a British Passport under the 1991 legislation had to have departed by 1997.

     Surprisingly, little reaction or fanfare occurred in Hong Kong, at least in the first few years after the announcement of this measure.  Both British and Hong Kong government officials anticipated a flood of applicants.  Rather than the 300,000 applications predicted, only approximately 65,000 heads of households applied for British Nationality.  This could have been due to the rigid screening system which some may have interpreted as unattainable.  More likely, was the choice of destination.  Most Hong Kong residents sought not to emigrate to the United Kingdom or other European destinations, but rather to the North American and Australasian regions.62   Some, though, did see the planned emigration as a "brake on [Hong Kong's] development," in that as Hong Kong progressed toward more of a service economy the departure of professionals could "erode the 'functional core' of the labor force."63

     The question of the 1997 handover still remained.  Beijing had to determine for themselves what citizenship within Hong Kong meant, an easy task since they already had a working definition in place concerning those born or residing in territories that they considered Chinese soil.  The PRC considered Chinese born in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao "compatriots."  This differed from the term "overseas Chinese" in that compatriots were considered Chinese born in a territory of China even though that territory did not come under rule of the mainland.  In the cases of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao, the mainland always regarded these three places as part of China and therefore its citizens Chinese.64 

     After the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) in 1997, all Hong Kong Chinese automatically became Chinese citizens holding HKSAR passports of the PRC.65   Unlike Hong Kong under British rule, China did not recognize dual nationality.  Therefore, the 1984 Settlement and Joint Declaration did not create a Hong Kong nationality since the creation of a nationality sui generis to Hong Kong had the implication of theoretical independence which the PRC certainly was not willing to consider.66   The Chinese created, though, a sub-division of Chinese nationality in order to distinguish the population in the new HKSAR.  Residency in Hong Kong then became based upon the criteria of:

1(a) all Chinese Citizens born in Hong Kong (whether before or after 1 July 1997);

(b) all Chinese citizens born elsewhere (whether before or after 1 July 1997) to parents in 1(a);

2(a) all Chinese citizens with seven years continuous ordinary residence in Hong Kong (whether before or after 1 July 1997);

2(b) all Chinese citizens born elsewhere (whether before or after 1 July 1997) to parents in 2(a);

3(a) all other persons with seven years continuous residence in Hong Kong (whether before of after 1 July 1997) whose place of permanent residence is Hong Kong;

3(b) Persons under 21 born (whether before or after 1 July 1997) to parents in 3(a);

4 any other person who before 1 July 1997 had a  right of abode only in Hong Kong (emphasis added).67

    Therefore, eligibility requirements for "citizenship" in Hong Kong did not change much from British rule except for two important differences.  First, of course, Hong Kong citizens became citizens of the PRC and could not hold dual nationality.  Secondly, unlike British rule, expatriates did not enjoy "Belonger" status and the rights it entailed.  They had to go through an identical process of procuring visas just as they would have in mainland China.  The British could hardly be indicted for narrowing their definition of citizenship when the PRC restricted it further.  Again, Hong Kong exists as an exception to the norm concerning citizenship and as a subset of another country's nationality.

    Since 1949, Hong Kong stands out as an example of how a government can take responsibility for its citizens, maintain manageable population levels, and protect the integrity of its internal security while creating an environment of inclusion and hope for the future.  Without such immigration controls, total population in the post-war era could have reached an intolerable level.  Also, the incoming refugees from the mainland, without some manner of immigration litmus test could have filled the colony with an assortment of undesirables and potential subversives.  By maintaining the number of citizens, the colonial government insured the provision of minimum social services without involving itself in a quagmire of entitlement programs.  Simultaneously, the government, by giving the population some responsibility in ensuring the security and defense of Hong Kong, began to create a vested interest in the future of the colony that the previous sojourner mentality had not allowed.  Finally, the experience of Hong Kong could provide an object lesson for many nations' immigration laws.  By defining varying degrees of citizenship, which can be revoked or suspended depending on circumstance, Hong Kong and the British government gained a valuable tool in dealing with a sometimes transient population and a continuing refugee problem.  Immigration and national status will continue to be hotly debated issue for nation states.  Solutions and the rationale behind them, today still seem similar to ones at the end of the eighteenth century in that "they [are] more of an account of how things should be than of how they [are]."68  Like Hong Kong's decision to grant asylum during and after the Communist victory in 1949, some nations may grant a general amnesty for their existing undocumented immigrants.  Others, especially segments of the population within the United States, complain that asylum or amnesty "undermines national self-determination," and the rule of law.69  What may be needed is a more adaptable system which is framed to meet the needs of international labor markets and political imperatives, which according to McKeown, "has been perfected in the point system of Australia, New Zealand and Canada in which each individual can be defined by his or her unique position in a matrix of standardized characteristic and arranged hierarchically against other individuals."70  Whether it is protecting the integrity of their borders, preventing having to outlay large financial commitments to undocumented migrants, or even ensuring their own citizens remain in the country of their birth, decisions will have to be made.  While study of Hong Kong's immigration problems cannot be considered a true analog to that of the United States and other Western nations, it can be valuable as a classroom example of dealing with issues of immigration, naturalization, population migration, refugees and human rights.

Michael Houf is an Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University–Kingsville.  He can be reached at


1  Adam McKeown, Melancholy Order:  Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), xxiv.

2  McKeown, Melancholy Order, 342.

3  Ibid., 324.

4 Barbara Demick, "The Baby Registry of Choice," Los Angeles Times, May 25, 2002, accessed January 18, 2011.

5 Hong Kong was originally given to the British as part of the Treaty of Chuenpi.  see G.B. Endacott, Fragrant  Harbor, (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1968), 20.

6 Government of England, Hong Kong Annual Report 1990, (Hong  Kong, 1990), 324.

7 C.P. Lo, "The Population: A Spatial Analysis."  in Chiu,  T.N. and C.L. So, Editors, A Geography of Hong Kong, Second Edition, (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1986), 151.

8 Government of England, Hong Kong Annual Report 1990, (Hong Kong, 1990), 324.  The New Territories comprise ninety-two  percent of the total land mass of Hong Kong (400 square       miles)

9 For a complete explanation of the British Nationality Act, 1948, see British Parliamentary Papers, Ser. 5, Vol.454, col. 46–104.

10 Kathleen Paul, Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar Era, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997),  xii–xiii

11 Paul, Whitewashing Britain, 4–5, 9.

12 Ronald Skeldon, "Hong Kong in an International Migration System," The Hong Kong Reader, Ming K. Chan and Gerard A. Postiglione, eds., (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996),  137.

13 Paul, xii.

14 Paul, Whitewashing Britain, 13

15 Paul, Whitewashing Britain, 25

16 Paul,  Whitewashing Britain, 166–167.

17 Skeldon,  "Hong Kong in an International Migration System," 138. The potential for emigration became reduced even more by the 1982 creation of British Dependent Territories Citizens (BDTCS) which clarified that while BDTCS were eligible to receive assistance from the British consulate during overseas travel, they did not have the potential for right of abode in the United Kingdom. Enbao Wang, Hong Kong 1997: The Politics of Transition, (Boulder: Lynne Renner Publishers, 1995), 125 n6.

18 Philip Morgan, Interview with the author. U.K., 1-4-95.  A note on comments by Philip Morgan, and with Winston Lo and Sandra Houf that appear in this article at fn 46. These are, in order, the author's father in law, a professional colleague, and the author's wife; are all long time residents of Hong Kong. 

19 Cornelius Osgood, The Chinese:  A Study of a Hong Kong Community, (Phoenix: University of Arizona Press, 1975), 1034, 1036.

20 T. N. Chiu, and C. L. So, eds, A Geography of Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press,  2nd edition, 1986), 160.

21  Peter Wesley Smith, "Anti-Chinese Legislation in Hong Kong", in Precarious Balance, Ming K. Chan, ed. (Armonk: New York, M.E. Sharpe, 1994). 153.

22 Minutes of Executive Council of Hong Kong, PRO, CO 131–123, 61.

23 Deportment of Aliens," South China Morning Post (18 October 1949), 10.    

24 Government of Hong Kong, Hansard:  The reports of the sittings of the Hong Kong Legislative Council.  Expulsion of  Undesirable Bill 1949. 240.

25 Editorial, South China Morning Post (19 August 1949). 6.

26 Hong Kong Government Gazette, 2 September 1949. vol. XCI.  Expulsion of Undesirables Ordinance 1949.112  Loose Minute Response by Foreign Office. P.D. Coates, 29 December 1949, PRO, FO 371 75944.

27——, South China Morning Post 20 (October 1949), 3.

28 "Undesirable Elements" South China Morning Post (16 August 1949), 12.

29 Government of Hong Kong, "Hansard, The reports of the sittings of the Hong Kong Legislative Council,"  Expulsion of Undesirables Bill, 1949,  22.

30 "Undesirable Elements" South China Morning Post  (16 August  1949), 1.

31 "Undesirable Persons" South China Morning Post  (1 September 1949),  3.

32 Hu Yueh, "The Problem of the Hong Kong Refugees," Asian Survey,  Vol. 2.  no. 1, (March 1962), 29.

33 "Wakeup," South China Morning Post, (12 January 1949), 8.

34 "Defense of Hong Kong," South China Morning Post (13 February 1949),  3.

35 Ibid., 272.

36 Hong Kong Political Summary authored by C. B. B.  Heathcoate-Smith PRO, 26 January 1949,

PRO, FO 371–75788.

37 "Defense of Hong Kong," South China Morning Post (6 December 1948),  1.

38 Ibid., 4.

39 Ian Bruce, Second to None, (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1991),  292.

40 Minutes of Executive Council, Jan–June 1949 PRO, CO 131 121,7.

41 Ibid., 158.

42 Editorial, South China Morning Post, 4 August 1949, 6.

43 Ibid., 6.

44 "Population Registration," South China Morning Post (14 October 1949), 5.

45 David M. Smith, ed., Living Under Apartheid, (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982), 21–22.

46 Dr. Winston Lo, Interview with the author (April 1, 1996); Sandra Morgan-Houf, Interview with the author (April 4–5, 1996)

47 Government of Great Britain, British Parliamentary Papers, Ser. 5, Vol. 454, cols 46–104.

48 Paul, Whitewashing Britain, 186.

49 Government of Great Britain, British Parliamentary Papers,  Ser. 5, Vol. 454, cols 46–104.

50 Paul, Whitewashing, 185.

51 William H Liu, "The Legal Person of Hong Kong Chinese in British Law,"  Asian Profile (Hong Kong), Vol.  4 no. 3 (June 1976), 196.

52 Ibid., 200.

53 Ibid., 197, 200.

54 W.T. Leung, "The New Towns Programme," in A Geography of Hong Kong, T.N. Chiu, and C.L. So, eds., (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1986), 258.

55 Alvin Y. So, Hong Kong's Embattled Democracy, (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 162.

56 Skeldon, "Hong Kong in an International Migration System," 147.

57 So, Hong Kong's Embattled Democracy, 165.

58 Ibid., 165.

59 Skeldon, "Hong Kong in an International Migration System," 147.

60 Wang, Hong Kong 1997, 116.

61 Ming-Kwan Le, "Community and Identity in Transition in Hong Kong," in The Hong Kong Guangdong Link: Partnership in Flux, Reginald Yin-Wang Kwok and Alvin Y. So, editors, (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1995), 124; So, Hong Kong's Embattled Democracy, 168.

62 Le, p. 124. And Skeldon, "Hong Kong in an International Migration System,"  148.

63 Skeldon, "Hong Kong in an International Migration System," 147.

64 Priscilla Leung, "Application of PRC Nationality Law to HKSAR," in The Basic Law of the HKSAR: From Theory to Practice, ed. Priscilla Leung and Zhu Guobin, (Hong Kong, 1998), 288.

65 Ibid., 288.

66 Robin M. White, "Permanent resident of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region as a 'Quasi-Nationality'" in The Basic Law of the HKSAR: From Theory to Practice, 305.

67 Ibid., 310.

68  McKeown, Melancholy Order, 4–5.

69  Ibid.,  338.

70  Ibid.,  339.


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