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The Rediff Special



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 Hong Kong.

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 Kong SAR.

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.

The Rediff Special

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