Hong Kong has much to offer, even for those who choose to leave

Bars and pubs on Lan Kwai Fong were quiet even before they were forced to shut in early April. Photo: Robert Ng. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

HONG KONG, Aug 8, 2021, SCMP. Twenty years ago this month, I ceased to be British and legally became a Chinese national. To achieve this, I renounced my birth nationality and gave up my British passport. In light of all the recent publicity about the revised British National (Overseas) passport scheme and Hongkongers leaving for pastures new, I thought I might offer a different perspective, South China Morning Post reported.

I received my naturalisation certificate, granted under Article 7 of China’s nationality law, on August 1, 2001. Within a few weeks, I had received my new ID card with three stars, my new Hong Kong SAR passport stating clearly that my nationality was now Chinese and – perhaps best of all – my home return permit for entry to mainland China, which a Hong Kong passport cannot provide.

My understanding is that those who had done this in Hong Kong before me were mostly ethnic Chinese with another citizenship, such as Malaysian or Indonesian, or South Asians or people of mixed ethnicity. As far as I know, I was the first Caucasian.

After news of my case became public, others contacted me to ask for details. Rationale varied from case to case, some to avoid tax or national service, others for the convenience of travelling on the same passport as their spouse or ease of travel to the mainland.

There were also two other high-profile cases involving Westerners later, Lan Kwai Fong Group chairman Allan Zeman in 2008 and Southern District Councillor Paul Zimmerman in 2012.

Everyone has their reasons for changing nationality. Mine were quite simple: I had become a Hong Kong person. I first came here in 1972 and, after some early months in the private sector, spent 34 years in public service.

The highlights of my last decade in the government included being the first commissioner for tourism and then the first director general of investment promotion at InvestHK.

Particularly in this last capacity, I travelled the world telling people what a great place our city is to do business. It just did not seem right to be doing this with a British passport tucked inside my pocket. It felt more natural to be “selling” Hong Kong if I could show people I believed it and had bought the product myself.

Such a major decision does not happen overnight but is the culmination of a process. For the first few years after settling here, going to England was going “home” while returning here was setting off to foreign parts.

Some time around 1980, the sentiment reversed. Going to England became visiting, while getting to Heathrow and checking in for the return flight meant I would soon be home.

Many long-time resident expats tell a similar story of coming for a much shorter period, say an employment contract for two years, and then waking up to find themselves still here decades later. Many have lived here for more than 50 years and chide me as a newcomer.

Different people give different reasons for finding Hong Kong an attractive place to live and work. Some speak of the friendliness of Hongkongers, their openness to international lifestyles and willingness to engage with foreigners.

Others stress personal safety and the widespread use of English. Hong Kong’s natural setting – sea, mountains, glorious country parks – evokes genuine enthusiasm. Then there is the general buzz of a city that seems always to be on the go and where things can be done so efficiently.

People settling in a foreign country, especially if they become its nationals, might find themselves called on to explain or justify major political issues there. Those going to the UK, for example, might be queried on the rationale for Brexit. I wish I could offer some assistance.

They might also be asked by their own children why Britain did not simply give them all nationality upon request, rather than subjecting them to the bureaucratic jungle. After all, that is what Portugal did for Macau citizens.

I am often called on to explain the national security law or the situation in Xinjiang. Luckily, on the former, I can point to several columns in this newspaper where I urged Hong Kong to implement its own laws in this area as required by Article 23 of the Basic Law. The chief executive, by contrast, began her term of office saying this was not a priority. Own goals are seldom so spectacular.

On Xinjiang, I say the situation is complex, nuanced and merits detailed discussion. At least unlike most critics, I have actually been there.

To all those leaving, I wish you well and hope that you are as happy in your new country as I am in mine. But if things do not work out, you will always be welcome back here in Hong Kong.

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