It is now proposed to give British citizens six months' visa-free entry but no right to work or study without an employment visa. This is bad news for the many newly arrived Britons who do all manner of menial jobs once exclusively undertaken by Chinese workers. At the other end of the scale it is a blow for highly paid professionals whose qualifications are recognised in Hong Kong, allowing them to slip into jobs paying at least twice as much as in Britain. The colony is so attractive to members of the British bar that it is known as "Treasure Island" in legal circles.
Although it was expected the incoming Chinese administration would abolish Britons' immigration privileges, it was not thought the outgoing administration would do the job for them. A spokesman said the move was prompted by concern expressed by trade unions, British citizens themselves and their employers, worried about the future.
Lee Cheuk-yan, a trade-union leader and legislator, said British citizens had enjoyed unfair advantages over other foreigners and were taking jobs from Hong Kong people.
Many of the jobs taken by Britons, such as labouring, distributing leaflets, delivering sandwiches and other catering jobs, are looked down on by local people, whose employment prospects are better elsewhere.
The wheel has come full circle in Hong Kong, where the British used to rule the roost, directing the labour of others, rather than labouring themselves.
A decade ago it was a novelty to have British waiters in restaurants and heads would turn if a white man appeared on a building site. The novelty was also good for business, encouraging Chinese restaurant owners to make a feature of their British waiting staff.
Nowadays it is commonplace to see Britons doing menial jobs. The latest figures from the immigration department show that there was a surge of British people coming to live in Hong Kong, with numbers rising by a third from June last year to February this year; 34,500 Britons are recorded as resident in the colony, more than double the number at the beginning of the decade.
As the new Britons come in, many of the long-established British residents, particularly those in the civil service, are moving out. The official localisation policy has meant expatriates wishing to stay in the service have had to accept demotion or had a cap placed on their promotion prospects. Proportionately, Britons fill a higher number of senior posts in the police force but the exodus of the highest ranks of the force is expected to be even greater than in the civil service as a whole.
The British Chamber of Commerce has been coy about pressing the case to preserve the special immigration status of Britons, fearing it would attract unwarranted attention. Although Hong Kong has been a colony for more than a century and a half, Britons have not constituted the largest overseas population for more than two decades. At present, Philippine citizens out number the British four to one.