Hong Kong Dragon

A little over 17 years ago, I gave up my British passport and naturalised as a Chinese citizen. That gave me three stars on my Hong Kong identity card and a HK Special Administrative Region passport issued by the local authorities here. But best of all, now when I go to the mainland (which I do several times a year) I am no longer visiting a foreign country, rather I am returning home to my adopted motherland and have a Home Return Permit issued by the mainland authorities.

Even after all this time, people still ask why I took this major step. A few want to do the same thing and would like to understand the procedures more thoroughly; some are just curious about what motivated me in the first place. Still others, with no knowledge of the situation, or me personally, speculate wildly about what my "real reasons" must have been.

Let me tell the whole story from the beginning so everyone is in the picture. Some will no doubt still choose not to believe me and suspect there is an ulterior motive which I have kept hidden. That is their right, but they would be wrong as I hope the following explanation will make clear.

The story begins in 1986 when several events took place which set me on the path to becoming a Chinese. By then I was married to a local girl and we had two young children. I had been in the public service for 12 years (ICAC from its inception in 1974 up to 1980; thereafter as an Administrative Officer in the government proper) and obtained an important promotion. It was also the year when I first visited our capital city as part of a delegation of expatriate civil servants to gain a better understanding of the views of the Central People’s Government about our position up to and beyond 1997. We met the then deputy head of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, Mr Lu Ping, then State Councillor Ji Pengfei in the Great Hall of the People. They were both emphatic that they wanted all expats to stay.

I called the family together and asked for their view on the following proposition: Hong Kong has a bright future, and the CPG seems sincere that it wants expats to stay on here after 1997. However the local political situation might turn sour on this last point. Hong Kong will still have a good future, but I might have to return to the private sector. We could not then afford to stay in Hong Kong because rents in the private sector would swallow up any salary I might earn. However if we were prepared to give up the very spacious government quarter that we now occupy, and buy a place of our own about half the size, we would be sacrificing living space in the short term but we would be insuring we could stay here in the long term. What do you say?

Happily, wife and children all said yes, and so it was that I took advantage of the Home Purchase Scheme subsidy to buy my own flat. Despite the many ups and downs in the property market since 1986, it turned out to be one of the better investment decisions we ever made.

It was on the same trip to Beijing that the subject of changing nationality first arose. One member asked Lu Ping straight out if there was any way he could become a Chinese National (the Joint Declaration signed in 1984 had made it clear a small number of the most senior posts in the government must be held by such persons. The Basic Law which came later in 1991 said the same thing). He said we could apply.

Upon return to Hong Kong I reported on the visit including Lu Ping’s answer. A senior official then sent me a copy, in English, of China’s Nationality Law. The first thing to strike someone new to the subject is how liberal the Nationality Law is. There is no reference whatsoever to ethnicity (thus debunking a commonly held view of both foreigners and local Chinese). Rather, there are three alternative routes for a foreigner to become Chinese spelled out in the law: close relative of a Chinese National (close relative not defined); or long term resident of China (long term not defined); or "other relevant circumstances", naturally not defined. It was reading the law in 1986 which planted the germ of an idea that one day, if I so chose, I could become Chinese.

Fast forward 15 years to the early part of this century. Having been the first Director in the Financial Secretary’s Office and the first Commissioner for Tourism, I was appointed in July 2000 to be the first head of a new government department, InvestHK. My job was to travel around the globe selling Hong Kong as the best place in the world to do business. By this time I had lived here for almost 30 years, and knew I would never leave. It felt discordant to be doing all this while still travelling on a British Passport. How much more natural would it be, and how powerful a statement would it make to potential foreign investors, if I could say to them "Hong Kong is such a good product, I bought it myself. And here is my Hong Kong passport to prove it".

So I dusted off that old copy of the Nationality Law, and obtained the information booklet and application form from the Immigration Department. The rest, as they say, is history.