Pigs Might Fly

There is a common expression in English to emphasise the unlikelihood of something happening. After another person has stated a desire for or expectation of a particular outcome, the doubter will add the words “And pigs might fly”. The expression might seem a little old-fashioned these days, but a wave of porcine cynicism washed over me recently and I could not refrain from deploying it.

The scene that provoked this sentiment was the sight of a crowd outside the United Kingdom Consulate in Hong Kong the weekend before last. They were calling for the holders of British passports, and holders of British National (Overseas) Passports to be treated the same. In effect they wanted full British citizenship including right of abode in the UK. They even sang God Save the Queen to demonstrate their loyalty.

The present unrest in Hong Kong has thrown up many strange sights – a former chief secretary urging sanctions against Hong Kong; otherwise intelligent people pretending the city could one day be independent; triad gangsters beating ordinary citizens in full public view while armed policemen turned their backs and walked away – but the consulate march gets a special prize for absurdity. For it ignores something that happened within living memory precisely to address the situation now arising.

In 1979, then leader Murray MacLehose became the first British appointed Governor to visit the mainland since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. He met Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Precisely what was said remains a bit murky, except on one point: Hong Kong people should put their hearts at ease because the future would be fine. This message was duly passed on to the good citizens of Hong Kong.

Following the visit, the British government began to consider the possibility there might be no role for the country to play in Hong Kong after 1997. It also foresaw a danger that post-1997 something might happen which caused local people to lose confidence in the territory and nudge them to consider emigration to the mother country. Whitehall prepared for this contingency by introducing the British Nationality Act of 1981 which provided inter alia that with effect from I January 1983 residents of the various British Territories would have different residency rights. Their passports (British Dependant Territory Citizen ones for those not from UK itself) would give right of abode only in the British territory from which they came. The Hong Kong only BTDC passports were later superseded by BN(O) ones.

At one time there were around 3.4 million people holding a BN(O) passport, but bit by bit as their uselessness became more apparent renewals dwindled and by 2006 only around 800,000 were current. By 2017 the number had dropped further to 60,000. Most local people now carry the Hong Kong SAR passport. Which brings us to the present day, with a Conservative prime minister leading a minority government struggling with Brexit.

There has always been a whiff of racism in UK immigration policy, particularly when the Conservatives held power but even if the Labour Party (which is having anti-semitism troubles of its own at the moment) were to take over there is simply no constituency in UK politics for suddenly changing policy as the protesters want because the potential inflow would quickly revert to the 3.4 million mark. Anti-immigration sentiment played a role in the Brexit referendum.

In any event, for nearly 40 years it has been UK government policy to exclude most Hong Kong people from UK residence if a confidence crisis arose here after 1997. What on earth makes people think the policy will be reversed now the very scenario which prompted it has come to pass?

Allied to the “UK as unlikely saviour” movement is a similar one involving the United States. A march on the US Consulate, Stars and Stripes held aloft, strains of the Star Spangled Banner resounding on Garden Road, placards calling for Donald Trump to save us. Even – have these people no shame – signs calling for the re-election of this wicked man “Trump 2020”. Have the demonstrators forgotten that he ran on an anti-immigrant platform? That he called Mexicans “rapists”? That he called the Charlottesville Nazis “fine people”? He wants to build a physical wall to keep people out.

Trump is no doubt eyeing the present problems here as a wonderful stick with which to beat China, but it is fanciful in the extreme to suppose he would suddenly throw open the doors to large numbers of migrants from Hong Kong.

Are there any other candidates for refuge? Mrs Merkel in Germany, perhaps, especially after the country recently gave political asylum to two fugitives from Hong Kong. Am I the only person to remember how much political hot water Merkel got into when one million refugees were allowed in to the country? These were people fleeing for their lives.

I really think it is time for some Hong Kong people to forget their dreams that outsiders are going to ride in on white steeds and solve all our problems. The reality is we are part of China, now and forever more. The Basic Law gives us all we could realistically want. Our best course of action is to cherish it, and nourish it. If we do run into difficulties, the only capital city worth visiting is our own in Beijing. Not Washington, not London or Berlin or Ottawa or Canberra. If we get that relationship right, our future is secure. If we fail to do so, then none of the others will matter very much.

Let’s not waste our time searching the skies for flying pigs. Rather let’s keep our feet on the ground and focus on bringing home the bacon.