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Now or Never|Joseph Long

Just as one thought, with the imposition of the national security law and the entire opposition being either in jail or in exile, things could not have been worse for Hong Kong, the rubber-stamp legislature of the city — now devoid of opposition — passed a new immigration law last week which comes as yet another crushing blow to the territory’s freedom and autonomy. Under the new regulations, which come into force on August 1, Hong Kong’s immigration director will be given new powers to stop people from entering or leaving the city; people can be barred by the immigration chief from boarding vessels or planes to and from Hong Kong. No court order is required and there is no recourse to appeal.

This is unprecedented. Since 1841 when the territory was ceded to and established by the British, Hong Kong has always been, at least insofar as the movement of people is concerned, a free city. The proclamation made by Charles Elliot, a Royal Naval officer and the first Administrator of the territory, decreed soon after the landing of his fleet at Hong Kong that British subjects and foreigners alike residing in the territory should enjoy “full security and protection […] according to British law,” which included mobility rights that were enshrined in the Magna Carta and throughout the common law since time immemorial. The Second Convention of Peking, which leased the New Territories to Britain rent-free for 99 years, also specified that “Chinese men-of-war, merchant and passenger vessels […] may come and go and lie […] at their pleasure.” Even during Japanese occupation in the 1940′s, the people of Hong Kong were free to leave the city without having to apply for a special permit prior to their departure.

In order to tumble to the true implication of the bill, we have to take a deeper look at the clauses of the amendment. The government claimed that the amendment was principally introduced to address persistent so-called “non-refoulement claims” by refugees and reduce the city’s asylum caseload by preventing asylum seekers from boarding inward bound planes in the first place. There is, however, a clause which would empower the director of immigration “to direct that a passenger or a member of the crew of a carrier may or may not be carried on board the carrier”.

In a statement published on Wednesday, the security bureau insisted that the freedom to travel and the right to enter or leave Hong Kong was already guaranteed under the Basic Law and that they would introduce further legislative adjustments to make clear that the scope of the amendment will only cover inbound flights. While the Hong Kong government has always insisted that the bill would only apply to flights into Hong Kong, it doesn’t seem to have put its money where its mouth is. The fact is that the wording of the bill does not limit the government’s powers to those arriving in the territory or to immigrants, and its reluctance to make amendments to limit the scope of the bill to that effect says it all: that the authorities’ true intent is to pave the way for the use of “exit bans” which have previously been used by China to stop foreign business people leaving the country. The Hong Kong Bar Association had already warned in February that the amendment conferred “unfettered power” to authorities to prevent Hong Kong residents and others from leaving the city and did not set out the grounds on which the power would be used.

The bill does not merely bring Hong Kong in line with China, but also effectively winds the clock back half a century to a time when exit visas were compulsory for those who wished to leave the country. For some in Hong Kong who are at sixes and sevens with the idea of leaving, especially those who might have made a bit of an enemy of the Chinese Communist Party through words or deeds, this could very well be a now-or-never moment.

(Joseph Long is a London-based writer and linguist from Hong Kong.)

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