The convoluted politics of foreign passports|Stephen Vines

Published (HKT): 2021.01.18 09:20

Regina Ip, desperate to burnish her credentials for the post of Chief Executive, and never reluctant to throw a weaker opponent under the bus, has struck.

The weaker opponent, of course, is the fast fading Carrie Lam, desperate to cling onto power as her bosses in Beijing have released the attack dogs to undermine her position.

Ms Ip has a world class ability to sniff out vulnerability and, armed with the knowledge that Ms Lam has an embarrassing encumbrance in the form of the British passports held by her husband and sons, she was quick to strike.

Ip is also very aware that paranoia over foreigners plays a dominant role in the thinking of China’s leaders. That’s why she went straight for the jugular by raising the issue of conflicting loyalties and, by the by, attacking Britain for offering citizenship to millions of Hongkongers.

It now appears that the National People’s Congress Standing Committee is looking at this matter and a highly likely outcome is that either holders of British National Overseas (BNO) passports will be singled out or that more sweeping conditions will be imposed on all foreign passport holders. At one extreme this could involve removing residence rights from those with the right of abode overseas or it may be confined to stripping them of all forms of public office plus voting rights and then goodness knows what.

On the surface it may be considered that ending rights to dual nationality is unexceptional. Many countries, including the United States, have a policy on these lines. However, what is unexceptional in one place is not necessarily so assuring in another.

This is underlined when outlawing the holding of dual nationality is being explicitly weaponized for political purposes, the imposition of new regulations here adds to a barrage of measures designed to extinguish people’s rights.

In Hong Kong the practise of holding two passports is widespread, far more so than in other jurisdictions. In part this arises from the fact that this is immigrant society and in equal part it is a result of uncertainty. Many people hold foreign passports as a form of insurance, giving them confidence to stay in Hong Kong even though they may have misgivings about their security.

A more or less guaranteed result of forcing people to choose Chinese nationality will be to trigger a mass exodus which will deprive the SAR of precisely the kind of people it needs to sustain the prosperity and, yes, the diversity of Hong Kong.

As matters stand the majority of foreign passport holders are middle class business people, professionals and others with vital skills. The enormous difference created by Britain’s offer to make holders of the BNO passport eligible for British citizenship is to throw the net much wider and give less wealthy and less well-connected people an escape route.

Meanwhile it cannot be ignored that some of the most vocal and active proponents of the crackdown on Hong Kong freedoms have also secured a means of escape via the foreign nationality rights of their families. This includes not only the Chief Executive but also the secretaries for Justice and Security. Maybe it also includes Ms Ip herself, a former British national who gave up her passport to secure a post as a policy secretary.

The ardent aroma of hypocrisy in this matter sweeps through Hong Kong’s entire ruling class and if action is taken to curb dual nationality they will be faced with an exquisite dilemma. Indeed, this may well be why, at the end of the day, action will be confined to political targets rather than the community as whole.

The question which Hong Kong rulers dare not ask is why so many people feel sufficiently insecure as to have taken steps to secure an escape route. Why, if as they claim, measures such as the National Security Law, are so popular, do so many people fear its implementation? Why does the so-called silent majority have to be forced to demonstrate their loyalty to the regime, when it is asserted that the silent majority is already loyal?

Most telling however is the assumption that despite claims for the superiority of authoritarian government, its supporters automatically assume that when citizens are given a choice between adherence to democratic systems as opposed to their cherished dictatorships, citizens will always opt for democracy.

(Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist, writer and broadcaster and runs companies in the food sector. He was the founding editor of ‘Eastern Express’ and founding publisher of ‘Spike’. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. He hosts a weekly television current affairs programme: The Pulse”

Vines’ latest book Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship, will be published early next year by Hurst Publishing. He is the author of several books, including: Hong Kong: China’s New Colony, The Years of Living Dangerously - Asia from Crisis to the New Millennium, Market Panic and Food Gurus.)

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