The Rediff Special /Aravind Vidyadharan
Indians anxious about Chinese takeover of Hong Kong
Hong Kong's ethnic Indian community looks to the future
with a sense of
optimism and pride, tinged with trepidation. For, they continue to thrive as
a successful trading community, contributing to Hong Kong’s phenomenal
growth. However, on July 1, 1997, this small community of ethnic Indian
businessmen, who have made Hong Kong their home for generations, will
largely become stateless. For, on that day, Hong Kong will cease to be a
British colony and will rejoin China as a Special Administrative Region.
Right now, Britain grants all its subjects in Hong Kong – including those of
ethnic Indian origin – a form of second-class citizenship, called the
British National (Overseas), after deviously amending the provisions of the
British Nationality Act. This grants the Hong Kong British subjects a
document giving them the right to enter Britain, but not the right of abode!
In the case of the ethnic Indian community of Hong Kong, after July 1, 1997,
they will lose their Hong Kong citizenship as well (which they now enjoy)
but will only have the right of abode in the Hong Kong SAR. This is because
the SAR will then be part of China, and China does not grant citizenship to
people of non-Chinese ethnic descent. As such, the Hong Kong Indian
community will not qualify for SAR passports either.
All that they will hold are Britain’s BNO passports which entitle them to
travel to Britain, but not the right of abode there, and also the right of
visa-free travel to 70-odd countries. However, even these BNO passports will
be denied to second generation ethnic Indians. So, down the road this
community faces becoming totally stateless.
Hong Kong’s Indian community’s pleas for Britain to grant it full British
citizenship has been largely ignored, and drowned in the din of the more
high profile squabble between China and Britain (led by Hong Kong Governor
Chris Patten) over the question of more democratic rights for the people of
The ethnic Indian community is acknowledged as a powerful trading force in
Hong Kong, but they are generally mute witness to the process of transition
to Chinese rule. As K. Sital, chairman of the Council of Hong Kong
Indian Associations (an umbrella body of eight Indian groups), said: "The
ethnic Indian community accounts for less than 0.5 per cent of Hong Kong’s
population of about 6 million, which is predominantly Chinese. And even
within the small non-Chinese segment of Hong Kong’s population, the Indian
community accounts for very little in terms of numbers. The community is
therefore fully conscious of the severe limitations on its ability to
influence events and the direction of change in Hong Kong."
However, despite their small number, two very prominent members of the
ethnic Indian community have played a significant role as members of the
Selection Committee which, first selected Tung Chee-Hwa as the chief
executive-elect of the Hong Kong SAR on December 10, and second, selected
the Provisional Legislature of the SAR on December 22.
The ethnic Indian members of the Selection Committee are the brothers,
Hari Harilela and Gary Harilela. Hari Harilela has played a very
important role in the run-up to Hong Kong’s transition to Chinese rule in
1997. For many years he has been an adviser to China on Hong Kong affairs,
as well as served on the drafting committee of the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s
mini-constitution which has been drawn up under the provisions of the
Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984).
Hari Harilela is very optimistic and confident that the ethnic Indian
community will continue to thrive in the future Hong Kong SAR. However, he
is very critical of Britain’s efforts to introduce more democratic reforms
in Hong Kong, which he says contravenes the Sino-British Joint Declaration
and the Basic Law. He also said that Britain must do justice to the ethnic
Indian community of Hong Kong who are entitled to the BNO passports, and
number about 3,000 to 4,000, by granting them full British nationality.
Further, he said that while focusing on the needless controversy over
democratic reforms in Hong Kong, Britain is ignoring the plight of Hong
Kong’s ethnic Indian community.
Meanwhile, a band of young ethnic Indian professionals and businessmen, have
set up a very effective forum to present their case to both the Chinese
government as well as the present Hong Kong and British governments.
Called the Indian Resources Group, it was set up in 1992 with the
'objective of serving as a forum for younger Indian professionals and
businessmen to contribute to Hong Kong,' said its spokesperson, Ravi Gidumal.
IRG members are distinct from Indian expatriates in Hong Kong, in that ''our
families have been here for generations, and we are Hong Kong locals, even
though we are not Chinese. We have a vested interest in Hong Kong, and would
very much like to continue to live and work here and contribute to the
future success of Hong Kong,'' Gidumal emphasises.
This sentiment is echoed by Sital, who said: "Hong Kong is the only home
many Indians in Hong Kong know. Most members are successful enough to meet
the criteria for the migration schemes under the business category to
countries like the US, Canada and others. But, there has been no major rush
by Hong Kong Indians to take advantage of these schemes."
He added that by thus opting to stay on in Hong Kong, the Indian community
has already demonstrated its conviction that its future lies with the Hong
Thus both Gidumal and Sital emphasise that the community is least likely to
settle down in Britain if they are given full British nationality. At the
same time, they both pointed out that Britain has a moral obligation to
grant full citizenship to this miniscule community to prevent it from
becoming stateless after July 1, 1997.
The IRG has been lobbying the British government over the last four years,
and presenting its case for full British citizenship. The IRG in particular
has successfully argued its case to Governor Patten, with whom it has been
in fairly regular contact.
Yet another powerful group which has been lobbying the Hong Kong and British
governents since the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration has been
the influential Indian Chamber of Commerce, Hong Kong. Chamber chairman Raj
Sital said that the current Hong Kong government has supported their moves
for full British nationality and even lobbied the British government.
And despite support for the measure among a sizeable number of members of
Parliament, the British Home Office has rejected their pleas on the "flimsy
ground that this will set a precedent." Raj Sital said that this argument of
the Home Office holds no water as there is absolutely no similar case
elsewhere of British subjects who will become stateless after Britain
renounces its sovereignty.
"However, we are ‘cautiously optimistic’ that Britain will not forsake us
and in the end do the honourable thing by giving us full British
nationality," said Raj Sital.
Aravind Vidyadharan is a senior journalist based in Hong Kong.