Core Change

Twenty years ago this month I ceased to be British and became legally a Chinese national. In order to achieve this outcome I had renounced my birth nationality and given up my British passport. In light of all the recent publicity about the revised BNO scheme and Hongkongers leaving for pastures new overseas, I thought I might offer a different perspective.

I received my naturalization certificate, granted under article 7 of China’s nationality law, on 1 August 2001. Within a few weeks, I had received my new ID card with three stars (which clarified that contrary to popular rumour there was no ethnic element to the law), my new Hong Kong SAR passport stating clearly my nationality was now Chinese, and – perhaps best of all – my home return permit for entry to mainland China (a Hong Kong passport cannot do this).

I am not the first westerner to have walked this road. After 1949 when the civil war ended in the mainland, a small number who had fought for the communist cause were granted citizenship there. I remember a former senior official in our Immigration Department telling me the only naturalization certificate he had ever seen was signed personally by then prime minister Zhou Enlai. About 1000 people had done this in the Hong Kong SAR before me. My understanding is that these were mostly ethnic Chinese with another citizenship (such as Malaysian or Indonesian), or south Asians or persons of mixed ethnicity. As far as I know I am 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, father of Lan Kwai Fong Allan Zeman in 2008 and Southern District Councilor Paul Zimmerman in 2012.

Everyone has their own reasons for changing nationality. My own 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, including a spell as a journalist, 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 still is, by the way). It just didn’t seem right to be doing this with a British passport tucked inside my pocket. After all if I sold Ford motorcars and you looked in my parking space and saw I drove a Honda, would you believe me that Ford cars were the best? It felt more natural to be “selling” Hong Kong if I could show people I believed it and had bought the product myself.

In fact such a major decision does not happen overnight, it 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 been resident for over 50 years and chide me as a newcomer!

Different people give different reasons for finding Hong Kong an attractive place to live and work. Many speak of the friendliness of Hongkongers, their openness to international lifestyles and willingness to engage with foreigners. Some stress personal safety (the very low crime rate, few knives, no guns) and the widespread use of English. Hong Kong’s natural setting – sea, mountains, our 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, may find themselves called on to explain or justify major political issues there. Those going to the UK, for example, may be queried on the rationale for Brexit. I wish I could offer some assistance. They may also be asked by their own children why Britain did not simply give them all nationality upon request, rather than subjecting them to the BNO bureaucratic jungle. After all that is what Portugal did for Macau citizens.

Those going to the United States may be asked why so many states are taking action to disenfranchise ethnic minorities while all the time preaching to the rest of the world the benefits of democracy. Or why America with 38 overseas military bases thinks China (with one anti-piracy base in Djibouti) is pursuing an aggressive foreign policy.

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 and nuanced, and merits detailed discussion. At least unlike most critics I have actually been there.

To all those leaving I say I wish you well and hope you are as happy in your new country as I have been in mine. But if things don’t work out, you will always be welcome back home in Hong Kong.