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HK Chinese join rush to apply for British passports


Hong Kong

It was hardly planned this way but yesterday two of Hong Kong's biggest sports stadiums were crammed full of people.

One held an expatriate-dominated crowd of spectators watching the very British tribal event known as the international rugby sevens, while the other, situated near to the Immigration Department, held a rather more significant queue of Hong Kong Chinese making last minute applications for registration as British citizens so that they can qualify for British National (Overseas) (BNO) passports, a document of little value which resolutely does not allow holders to become real British citizens.

Yet in the past few days tens of thousands have joined monster queues to secure registration as British Dependent Territory Citizens, although in a year's time they will no longer be in a British dependent territory and will become citizens of the People's Republic of China.

A middle-aged woman surnamed Chan, emerging weary but triumphant from the Immigration Department, neatly summed up the reason why she had made an effort to register before yesterday's midnight deadline.

"Even this passport is better than the Chinese one," she said. "I have more confidence in it."

China appears to have gone out of its way to diminish confidence in recent days. The plan to abolish the legislature was formally announced, civil servants were told they would have to sign loyalty pledges, all members of democratic parties were summarily ruled out of eligibility for the new (wholly appointed) legislature and even one notoriously vacillating but democratically-minded member of China's appointed body which is preparing for the transfer of power was told that a failure to vote in favour of the abolition of the legislature ruled him out for future membership.

Against this background of events, which have all taken place in the space of a week, those who are eligible for this curious form of second- class British citizenship have joined the queue for British naturalisation registration. Both Hong Kong government and Chinese officials and China's supporters in the colony have sought to present the last-minute scramble to obtain British Dependent Territory citizenship as a mere technicality.

"It gives them more choices abroad," said Rita Fan , one of China's chief advisers. She was suggesting that local people were merely interested in visa-free travel.

There is an element of truth in this because holders of BNO passports have visa-free access to some 80 countries, while only Britain, after a long row, and Singapore have offered the same facility to the new Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong passport which will be issued next year.

However, this may be a side issue. Those who have sought British nationality are well aware that it does not bestow the right of abode in Britain but believe it will carry some kind of international status which may be useful if things go seriously wrong in the new Hong Kong.

Significantly, a high proportion of China's Hong Kong advisers have access to foreign passports and practically all senior civil servants have been given the option of full British citizenship as a safety net inducement for staying put.

Those with the means of escape have been the most vocal in assuring the rest of the population that everything will be all right after the Chinese takeover on 1 July 1997.

Meanwhile, over at the Hong Kong Stadium the aggressively British-style orgy of drinking, mildly outrageous behaviour and, to a lesser extent, sport, was taking place with local people giving it a wide berth.

The minority of foreigners who wish to remain in the territory after it reverts to Chinese rule were among those joining the lines outside the Immigration Department. However in this, as in a great number of other matters, China has failed to make clear the conditions under which they may be able to stay.

This, and a host of other uncertainties, has persuaded large numbers of local people to seek the security of a British passport, even though it carries no citizenship and may well cause problems for holders as the incoming administration has made clear its dislike of the British nationality scheme.