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First children join Hong Kong fathers

The first batch of Chinese-born children entitled to live in Hong Kong under a controversial new scheme entered the territory yesterday clutching hurriedly issued certificates of entitlement.

Ranging in age from two years old to twenty one, the 153 immigrants passed across the border at Lowu to what their parents hope will be a more prosperous future. They are among more than 66,000 offspring who have the right to live in Hong Kong under its new mini-constitution, the Basic Law. This says any child with a Hong Kong resident as a parent is entitled to live in the territory.

The large numbers of men crossing the border from Hong Kong has ensured the birth of even larger numbers of children who, under British rule, had no automatic right to live there.

Having given these children new rights, the incoming government got cold feet, fearing that the social services and schools would be swamped with hordes of Chinese-born youngsters. One of its first acts was to introduce the certificate of entitlement to stem the influx.

Although it is not admitted, the purpose of the scheme is to use the slow grinding wheels of Chinese bureaucracy to decelerate the process of application for residence. However, a great many children who were smuggled into Hong Kong under British rule put a spanner in the works by giving themselves up to the authorities, thinking that now they would be able to remain with legal status.

This proved to be a mistake because the government adopted a hard line and started rounding them up for deportation. The deportations have been stopped by a rush of court challenges to be heard next month, which are shaping up to be a constitutional battle led by Hong Kong's top lawyers who argue that the government is breaching its own constitution and undermining the rule of law.

The government says no fundamental rights are being taken away but the exercise of them is being curtailed by the practical need to verify the status of those applying to live in Hong Kong.

These arguments passed over the heads of the children who arrived yesterday. Most looked rather bewildered by the fuss which greeted their arrival. Others must be wondering what it will be like to live with fathers they hardly know.