Time Travel

The century and a half of British administration in Hong Kong bequeathed many good things to this cosmopolitan Chinese city, such as the legal system, respect for the rule of law, and dedication to free trade.

But there were also some pretty shameful aspects, and I don’t mean only the Opium Wars that gave rise to the founding of the Colony in the first place. One of these has just come back to bite everyone a second time through an unusual set of circumstances.

The episode I have in mind was the change to the British Nationality legislation, effective from 1981, which stripped Hong Kong people of their right to live in the United Kingdom. Hitherto, British people could land in Hong Kong – or any other colony for that matter – as I did in 1972, and start work immediately. Residents of the colonies had a reciprocal right.

The effect of the change was that henceforth people only had the right to live in their own colony (and British people were treated like any other foreigner for the purposes of coming to Hong Kong to work). Although in theory the legislation was colour blind and applied equally to places like the Falklands and Gibraltar, in practice Hong Kong was the real target with an eye to what might happen as 1997 approached. The very idea that five million hard working Asian entrepreneurs might suddenly turn up at Dover to transform the economy with their energy, capital and spirit proved too much for the British government of the time.

Once the transition here had gone through smoothly, the Falklands and Gibraltar situations were quietly reversed.

So Hong Kong people became British Dependent Territory citizens and then “British Nationals Overseas”. And the infamous BNO passports came into being.

I say infamous because these documents gave the holder neither a nationality – British Nationality without the right to live in Britain is, or should be, a contradiction in terms – nor the right to live even in Hong Kong itself. The most the passports could say on this latter point is that the holder was also the holder of a HK Identity card which gave the person right of abode here.

Chinese citizens of Hong Kong were entitled to a HK SAR passport which carried all the usual benefits of these documents. Those wishing to cling to memories of times past could also apply for a BNO. Many Hong Kong people secured both, one to travel on and one in the safe deposit box at the bank in case of a rainy day.

While the huge British Consulate passport section was based here, this presented few major problems as the BNO passports could be renewed quickly and easily.

But the decision – some say at the behest of the Americans on security grounds, but who knows – to centralise all passport renewals in Liverpool has resulted in delays of up to four months (and rising). This is bad enough for those holding full British passports, but is doubly hard for the SAR passport holders as they are required to hand them in as well as part of the BNO renewal process. So they are completely stranded, unable to travel at all for a long period.

My advice to them is to do what I did in 2001. Put nostalgia aside, give up the British passport and travel the world proudly on your Hong Kong China passport. When necessary, it can be renewed within a few days – you can even book online.

And I have just renewed my Home Return Permit for travel to the mainland at the China Travel Service office in Central. It took less than an hour.

Mike Rowse
email: mike@rowse.com.hk