Why turn away these perfect citizens?

Barring Hong Kong Chinese from coming to Britain is like throwing away North Sea oil
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The Independent Online
As he strolls through the leafy grounds of the Governor's country residence and relishes the colonial splendour of Government House today, John Major may well reflect that this is could be the last time a British prime minister sets foot on Hong Kong soil as a British colony. When he flies out of Hong Kong this evening, what will John Major have concluded there is to be proud of? What indelibly good British values will we leave behind in June 1997?

This ill-gotten little slice of a faraway land, so ignobly acquired in the Opium Wars, will be just as ignobly deserted. The final and abiding symbol of our shabbiness will be 13 elderly war widows who have been denied British passports - (well, who wants to be "flooded" with widows?). The number of widows goes down with every article written about them, for the obvious reason; not long ago there were 50. A small concession is expected from the Prime Minister: 2 million Hong Kong Chinese, holders of the Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) passports will have the same right to visit Britain without a visa that the 3.5 million entitled to British National Overseas passports will have after 1997. But none of them will have the right to live or work here. Even this paltry gesture was vigorously opposed in cabinet by the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, afraid it might be a back-door route to illegal immigrants.

A few months ago Governor Chris Patten bravely called for the Government to grant passports to all 3.3 million born and bred in Hong Kong. The furore he caused was all the more disgusting for being so entirely predictable. Michael Howard's blunt refusal was enthusiastically endorsed by Labour's Shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who said that it was neither "appropriate or practical to offer automatic admission to three million Hong Kong overseas citizens." Only Paddy Ashdown has honourably advocated their cause.

Some 50,000 of the best-heeled Hong Kong families are to be allowed passports that will let them live in Britain. The rest of the 3.3 million who were born in the colony will be left to their fate. Late in the day, when many of the richest Hong Kong residents had already made other arrangements to live in countries that welcome them with open arms - Canada, Australia and New Zealand - Britain added on a tacky little proviso to our No-Chinky- Chonks-Here policy: they can come in if they have pounds 1m and promise to invest it in treasury bonds. There has not been a noticeable stampede.

Racism is deep-dyed in British politics, with a left-right consensus on immigration that endorses the meanest foreigner-hating spirit of British prejudice. Of the many MPs who have spoken out against Hong Kong immigration, I decided to talk to the relatively insignificant but typical Tory backbencher David Wilshire. He has his finger on the pulse of some of the nastier national attitudes towards immigration, a view of the world from which you, gentle reader of this liberal newspaper, may sometimes be over-protected.

"Just say to them we're full up. I'm ever so sorry, there isn't any room left!" he told me. "We haven't the housing for them, we haven't the jobs." But these are skilled people and unlikely to be unemployed or to need council housing. Wouldn't they rekindle the torpid housing market? "I don't believe that guff about them all being entrepreneurs. Sorry, just no room." He adds: "I'm by no means a racist but mixing does cause huge problems. We have a very serious racial problem already. It's just about under control, but it could get out of control, God forbid!" He is in favour of voluntary repatriation for anyone wanting to leave. "Only too pleased to help them go."

Mr Wilshire represents Spelthorne, one of Britain's safest Tory seats, which abuts Heathrow airport: 35,000 pilots, flight crew and skilled mechanics live in his 97 per cent-white patch, while the poor Asians who work at the airport live in Hillingdon, to the north.

"In my pubs immigration and customs officers tell their stories, and maybe with Chinese whispers they get a bit exaggerated. One will say he's just picked up someone saying they're coming on holiday, when they've got a letter from Staines in their luggage offering them a job starting next Monday. Another has Christmas decorations in her case, at Easter. How long is she planning to stay?"

He fulminates about the 40,000 asylum applications a year. I point out that in 1994, only 825 were actually admitted. "You don't need facts for prejudice," he replies wisely. "It's what people think that matters. I know how my people think."

Why do people think what they think? Partly because their prejudices are fuelled by politicians. Language matters. Lord Dubbs reports an eight- year- old Ethiopian girl in her school playground asking her teacher what "bogus" means because the other children keep calling her "bogus", as in "bogus refugee" and "bogus asylum-seeker".

Nice white Britain, ethnically clean, colourless, tasteless and lifeless as a thick-cut loaf of Mighty White - imagine a Britain that had never allowed immigration. The list of cultural riches is too long to contemplate and when would you begin, since "we" are and always have been a mongrel island? A recent report from the London Research Centre celebrated the success of London as Europe's best multi-racial city, where nearly a third of the people will be from myriad ethnic minorities in 15 years' time, cosmopolitan and largely at ease with itself.

Our attitudes towards Asia have become curiously contradictory. The Tiger economies are admired by both Blair and Major. Industrious, studious, ambitious, their people never strike, never divorce, save and prosper. Crimelessly obedient, they are the perfect citizens - if only we were more like them! Personally I am quite glad we are not. For one thing, these homogeneous cultures have a narrow, closed outlook themselves, often intensely racist and hostile to outsiders. It would be hard to match Japan's deep-seated contempt for foreigners, while the Chinese have never given citizenship to anyone not ethnically Chinese. However, both main parties extol the various virtues they find in these societies, yet how do they square this admiration with an adamantine refusal to let these paragons of virtue into Britain?

Gibbon blamed the decline of Greek civilisation on its racial restrictions on citizenship. "The narrow policy of preserving, without any foreign mixture, the pure blood of ancient citizens had checked the fortune and hastened the ruin of Athens and Sparta." Rome, on the other hand, thrived by embracing the talents of "slaves, strangers, enemies and barbarians" if they would make citizens of merit.

Time and again we are told that real gold lies in human resources - people, education, talent, brain, inspiration and intellectual capital. We live in a world where the successful economies are driven by the best ideas, designs and inventions. Turning away these Hong Kong citizens, sending them elsewhere about the globe, may begin to look like throwing away a treasure trove as valuable as North Sea oil. The brightest and best of Hong Kong, rejected by us, are heading instead for the sun-rise countries. We shall miss their talents as the sun finally sets over the British empire.