HONG KONG : Call for British Citizenship for Residents Inflames Tempers


Gov. Christopher Patten has developed a reputation for controversy-stirring straight talk. But his latest comments have done more than alienate China, embarrass Britain or upset Hong Kong residents--they’ve accomplished all three at once.

The snowy-haired governor, who avers that his conscience determines his views, has rebuked London for revoking the right of 3.3 million of this British colony’s citizens to move to Britain.

“A British passport should be more than helping you travel comfortably around the world,” he said on a British Broadcasting Corp. talk show last week. “Those who qualify for a . . . British passport should be qualifying for something that if necessary gives them right of abode.”


Those remarks--though long the local government’s position--swiftly revived the hopes of many Hong Kong residents. They have nurtured a smoldering sense of abandonment since Britain revoked their right of abode in 1979 while considering the return of Hong Kong to China.

Patten reopened old wounds when he publicly urged his colleagues in the British government to give Hong Kong people the right to live in Britain, if only as an “insurance policy” in case things go wrong after China resumes rule in 1997.

“I don’t think the 3 million or more than 3 million Hong Kong citizens are suddenly going to arrive at Heathrow” airport, he added, anticipating criticism from Britishers fearing a flood of immigrants.

Emily Lau, an outspoken legislator who appeared on the talk-show panel along with a Hong Kong businessman, a Western journalist and Patten, joined the colonial governor in pleading for full citizenship.

“Half of the people in Hong Kong are refugees from Communist China. The other half are their descendants,” Lau said before an audience here participating in the question-and-answer program. “One thing Britain can do unilaterally is give us nationality.”

After the 1989 Chinese crackdown on demonstrators in Beijing’s Tian An Men Square, Hong Kong officials had secured British citizenship for 50,000 families to stem a panicked exodus from the territory. But Hong Kong leaders failed to persuade London to restore the full passports for all residents.

“Help us,” Lau said, appealing directly to listeners in England. “We in Hong Kong are trapped. We are very scared.”

The comments of the governor--a close friend of British Prime Minister John Major and, because of his advocacy of democratic reforms, a mortal enemy of Beijing--caused a storm of reaction.

“Crazy Patten” was the headline in Britain’s most popular paper, the Sun, which remarked that “it has obviously escaped Patten’s notice that we have a few problems of our own in the old country: unemployment and the health service for a start. Patten’s plan is Hong Kong phooey.”

Several prominent politicians from his own Conservative Party, including Home Secretary Michael Howard, denounced Patten’s suggestion.

And while several Establishment papers here supported him, Britain’s right-wing Sunday Express accused the governor in an editorial of having “lost touch with reality,” arguing that “the reality is that the ‘full up’ sign should have been hung up on these islands years ago. And Gov. Patten doesn’t seem to know it.”

China, still smarting from the thrashing of Beijing-linked candidates in the Sept. 17 race for Hong Kong’s first fully elected legislature, accused Patten of “tearing up” past agreements over the colony’s transition. China also dismissed his statements as “a dishonest, clumsy performance that cannot deceive the overwhelming majority of people.”


While many people in Hong Kong applauded the governor’s forthright stance--about 400,000 people have already secured second passports--some criticized him for playing politics to save face.

“Hong Kong people are sophisticated enough to understand what is going on,” said Joseph Cheng, an analyst at City University here. “I don’t think gestures of this kind can enhance his popularity and image, because he cannot deliver.”

And an English-language Eastern Express editorial bluntly said of Patten: “If he can fight so ardently for democracy with Beijing, he should surely have been just as single-minded in championing the passport question in Parliament. . . . We expect to see him challenging people like the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary in the same way as he challenged Beijing.”