The freedom to stay

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In spite of the furore generated by Governor Chris Patten's recommendation last Friday that the 3 million Hong Kong people who carry British passports be granted the right of abode in Britain, the reality is that very few people in Hong Kong want to leave their home. Instead - as they demonstrated in overwhelming numbers at the polls last week - what they really want is assurance that the freedom, democracy and autonomy they were promised in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration will continue in what appears to be an increasingly uncertain future.

Against all odds, Hong Kong peoplebacked pro-democracy candidates in the face of escalating threats from Peking to scrap our legislature and other elected bodies when China takes over on 1 July 1997. I believe this voice of courage moved Governor Patten to make the recommendation he did. And I hope it will move the people of Britain to see that Hong Kong people share the same values, hopes and aspirations that they do.

Three million Hong Kong citizens were born as British as John Major. What is being so hotly debated in Britain is a birthright that was not given up voluntarily - but stripped from them because they were born as ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong.

What makes Hong Kong our home is first of all our freedoms - underpinned by Britain's greatest legacy, the rule of law. It is just these freedoms that are under greatest threat, by China, but also by the outgoing British colonial government that has lately been more concerned about its trade relationship with the People's Republic than with defending Hong Kong.

The best way to do this is by giving Hong Kong people an insurance policy for our future. The most compelling argument in favour of giving Hong Kong people the British passports they were born with is that China would then need to work to keep Hong Kong the kind of place where its citizens would want to continue to live - and the type of place in which the international community would want to continue to do business. Indeed, Hong Kong people are painfully aware that Portugal, one of the poorest countries in the European Union, has given Portuguese citizenship to the several hundred thousand citizens in its colony of Macau: a citizenship, ironically, that will enable the Chinese citizens of Macau to live anywhere in the EU - including Britain.

Many of us are committed to stay, no matter what the future holds. Instead of persuading Hong Kong people to leave the colony, awarding Hong Kong citizens the real British passports of their birthright would do just the opposite: it would give them the courage to stay and fight for a free future. It would also give Peking the incentive to turn now empty promises of democracy and autonomy into reality.

The writer is chairman of Hong Kong's Democratic Party.