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July 1997, Volume 4, Number 7

Hong Kong Reverts to China

On July 1, 1997, Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese rule, ushering in a 50-year period of "one country, two systems."

On July 4, about 700 people, mainly mainland-born children and the wives of Hong Kong men, surrendered at the Hong Kong immigration office hoping to win permanent residency. Many of the immigrants have the right of abode through family ties, but instead of waiting to enter the territory legally, they were smuggled in by snakeheads. Hong Kong officials also announced that 1,000 children who would have been repatriated as illegal immigrants before the handover could now stay while they established right of abode under the Basic Law.

The announcement sparked fears that there would be a flood of up to 60,000 mainland children into Hong Kong. The move was announced after 500 parents and children, whom they had smuggled into Hong Kong, staged a sit-in at Immigration Tower in Wan Chai on July 4.

Lawmakers in Hong Kong will be asked to rush through three readings of a law to send back young illegal immigrants who are unable to show proof of identity. The Hong Kong secretary for security reiterated that there will be no amnesty of illegal arrivals. Border patrols were stepped up amid fears of an influx of mainland children before the measure is passed.

In advance of the handover, many local residents had applied for post-handover special administrative region or SAR passports, a deep blue document embossed with gold letters in Chinese and English and the five star seal of the People's Republic of China. Holders of SAR passports are considered Chinese nationals as well as Hong Kong permanent residents; about 5.5 million people are eligible for SAR passports. So far 40 countries, including Britain and the United States, have said they will grant visa-free or easy-visa access to SAR passport holders.

Some three million Hong Kong residents are eligible for British National Overseas (BNO) passports, which allows easy travel but provides no British residency rights.

Confusion remains about residency rules after the turnover. The Chinese State Council announced in April that Hong Kong citizens who are living outside the territory were not required to be in Hong Kong on July 1, 1997 to retain their residence rights, but they do have to return within 18 months to retain their right to vote, to work without a visa or run for public office.

The Time magazine/CNN poll of 800 Hong Kong residents found that 18 percent considered immigration from China to be their top concern, tied with concern over increased corruption and scarce housing. About 60 million of the 92 million entries and exits from Hong Kong in 1995 involved trips to and from mainland China and some mainland Chinese remain in Hong Kong illegally.

Hong Kong expelled 26,000 illegal Chinese immigrants in 1995. Hong Kong has run ads in Hong Kong and in China to warn that immigrants without papers will be returned.

Hong Kong's population is expected to increase 30 percent to 8 million residents by 2010. Hong Kong had 1.6 million residents in 1941, 600,00 in 1945, 1.8 million in 1949, 3.1 million in 1970, 4.9 million in 1979, and 6.3 million in 1996. About 150 mainland Chinese arrive legally every day, 60,000 per year.

In June 1997, the Hong Kong Federation of Industries asked for permission to import foreign workers, arguing that Hong Kong factories should be able to import one foreign worker for each local employee they hire.

Since April 1997, elderly Hong Kong residents have been able to move to China and keep their public assistance benefits of about $250 per month. Two homes for the elderly are being planned in Guangdong, where living costs are much lower.

Hong Kong closed down its largest detention camp on June 16. The camp held 1,900 Vietnamese asylum-seekers. About 90 Vietnamese boat people and 276 ethnic Vietnamese were transferred to the territory's only remaining detention camp at High Island. The Hong Kong government urged Hanoi to speed up procedures to repatriate the remaining asylum-seekers before the territory reverts to Chinese rule. The Chinese government has stated that it does not want to inherit the Vietnamese asylum seekers.

Hong Kong authorities have released Jerry Stuchiner, a former INS agent charged with passport fraud, after he served his three-month sentence. Stuchiner argued that if he were to remain in custody in Hong Kong after China takes over, his life would be in danger because he helped Chinese dissidents flee to the United States after the massacre of democracy activists in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Internal Migration. Within China, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) estimated that the number of farm workers in China in 1995 was about 250 million, not 900 million as had been previously reported. The rural work force, excluding the elderly and children, was 460 million, including 100 million employed in small scale nonagricultural production and 100 million surplus workers.

Past estimates considered everyone who was registered in a farmer's household to be a farm worker. The new system includes as farm workers only those who work in agriculture.

China received $47 billion in foreign direct investment in 1996, and expects $40 billion in 1997. There are estimated to be 147 million industrial workers within China and labor disputes rose sharply in 1995 to 33,000. In March 1997, a reported 20,000 workers in Nanchong, a city of seven million in Sichuan province, took a silk factory manager hostage to protest six months unpaid wages and forced the government bank to lend the factory money to pay their back wages.

Some government officials want to increase labor mobility rather than continue to prop up bankrupt factories. However, others feel that increased migration within China is a security risk--migrants are being rounded up in Beijing before the July 1, 1997 Hong Kong transition. In some cases, local and migrant workers clashed when managers laid off one group or the other.

South Korea reported in mid-June that 34 illegal Chinese who paid $9000 each to be smuggled into Seoul to work were arrested. Taiwan reported that 240 illegal Chinese migrants were apprehended in mid-June, and 1649 in 1996.

A Los Angeles Times survey of 773 ethnic Chinese in six southern California counties found that 87 percent of those interviewed were immigrants, but 72 percent were naturalized US citizens. Almost 40 percent arrived in the 1980s, after the US established diplomatic relations with China in 1979. The Chinese community in America has grown from about 237,000 in 1960 to more than 1.8 million, including almost 900,000 in California, and 400,000 in southern California. Almost one-fourth reported incomes over $60,000.

Billy Wong Wai-Yuk and Stella Lee, "China II fears trigger extra patrols," South China Morning Post, July 5, 1997. "HK toughens posture against illegal child migrants, sets talks," Agence France Presse, July 5, 1997. Connie Kang, "Chinese in the south land: immigrants make up 87 percent of what was once a largely US born community," Los Angeles Times, June 29, 1997. April Lynch, "Troubling Tide of Immigrants," San Francisco Chronicle, June 25, 1997. Maggie Farley, "Hong Kong Eases Residency Fears," Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1997. "Hong Kong closes down largest Vietnamese detention camp,," Agence France Presse, June 16, 1997. William Branigan, "Hong Kong set to free jailed former INS agent," Washington Post, June 13, 1997. "Hong Kong issues post-hand-over passport applications," Agence France Presse, June 10, 1997.