SCMP Saturday, August 5, 2000

Facing harder attitudes

LINDA YEUNG


Father of three and university lecturer Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung is one of the people in Hong Kong who has spoken out in support of mainlanders seeking Hong Kong residency, as someone who has always believed in the right

of mainlanders with parents in Hong Kong to be given right of abode here. But when he heard about the arson at Immigration Tower on Wednesday, he knew that all his efforts in speaking out at public forums were likely to have been a waste of time.

That night he could not sleep either, shocked by the tragedy and sorry for those injured. "It will be very hard for people to be willing to listen to voices of the mainlanders and their grievances now. Public attention will be shifted away from this discriminatory policy."

His own background helped spur him into expressing support for abode seekers in their long campaign for residency rights. Born in Macau, he moved to Hong Kong at the age of seven and had lived here until he went to the United States to study. His three sons were born in the US, and automatically became Hong Kong residents.

Mr Cheung, who teaches in the Department of Applied Social Studies at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says he and many others who support the abode seekers now find themselves in an even more marginalised position than before the arson attack.

Lawyers representing the thousands of claimants have voiced concern that sympathy is drying up for the mainland children of Hong Kong people who have continued to arrive, even after Beijing's re-interpretation of the Basic Law.

One caller to a phone-in radio programme was so angry with the mainlanders that she linked the issue to proposals for the 24-hour opening of the Lowu border checkpoint. "Chaos could occur in Hong Kong if more people come from the mainland."

Mr Cheung - who strongly rebuffs the Government's claim that Hong Kong would be flooded with 1.67 million mainlanders if the Court of Final Appeal (CFA) ruling made last January was acted on - says some of his colleagues share his stance but "I always think I am part of a minority". Following the CFA ruling, the Government requested the National People's Congress Standing Committee to re-interpret Article 24 of the Basic Law, which had the effect of tightening the conditions under which mainlanders could claim residency.

Die-hard supporters of the abode seekers, such as Viki Wong Shui-ying, remain bold in the face of rising public anger towards the overstayers. Ms Wong says she lost sleep over Wednesday's incident, but insists the

violent act has not weakened her commitment to helping the mainlanders, many of whom she has befriended.

She took an interest in their plight after they staged a protest outside the Central Government Offices against the Government's intention to seek a re-interpretation of the Basic Law.

Ms Wong works for Video Power, which draws public attention to social issues through documentaries. Programmes she has helped make have been presented to a wide range of audiences over the past year. Rather than distancing herself from the cause, she identifies with the abode seekers she has had frequent contact with.

"I felt sad and confused after I learned of the arson. I wondered why it happened, why would the group risk their lives?"

She is inspired by the mainlanders, whom she says are despised and increasingly isolated by many in Hong Kong. "I was curious about them at first. Unlike us, they are highly nationalistic. As someone born in Hong Kong, I have always been confused about my own identity. I called myself British before the handover, then Chinese after the handover, but I like to tell people I am from Hong Kong. Being with the mainlanders also allows me to discover new ways of thinking."

But like Mr Cheung, it is her strong sense of injustice that sustains her concern. She shares a common concern that the arson will further widen the split between Hong Kong people and mainland immigrants. "I am afraid that fewer people will support advocacy work for minority groups. Those groups are always subject to different degrees of social pressure."

People working with new immigrants who have one-way permits say some of them discriminate against the abode seekers.

Over the years, Video Power has documented the plight of various vulnerable groups, such as caged people, indigenous women residents in the New Territories and victims of toy factory fires across the border. Ms Wong is keen that the abode controversy is not overtaken by other issues happening in Hong Kong. "It is a very special issue that has arisen after the handover. Thousands of people are involved in one single court case."

The number of Hong Kong people who turn up at rallies held by abode seekers to show their support is declining, she says. But what is of immediate concern to her is the possible public backlash against her mainland friends. Two have recently been arrested by police for taking part in what was said to be an illegal assembly outside the Central Government Offices on June 26, the first anniversary of Beijing's re-interpretation of the Basic Law. Local university students who also went to the event were not affected, she notes.

On Thursday, the day after the arson, she and the executive secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese, Mary Yuen Mei-yin, met with a group of anxious abode seekers to listen to their concerns. Apart from Italian priest Father Franco Mella, who has emerged as a key source of moral support, she and Ms Yuen's group have provided vital emotional and logistical support.

"I am sorry for what happened. Those people responsible for the arson should be charged with criminal offences," says Ms Yuen. But she adds: "I hope more can be done to let people understand more about the situation the mainlanders are in - supporters for the abode seekers will be in a more difficult position. Hong Kong people have become more emotional over the abode issue after the tragedy. Many think repatriation is the only solution."

The Immigration Department has said it will not repatriate those whose court cases are not yet over. But Ms Yuen says the non-repatriation policy has not been strictly enforced and has caused confusion to some. She claims some abode seekers were told they should leave immediately when applying for their permit to be renewed.

Alan Leong Kah-kit, vice-chairman of the Bar Association, which is opposed to Beijing's re-interpretation, hopes the strong public sentiment against mainlanders will not result in prejudice against them in forthcoming court decisions. "The rule of law should not be jeopardised by what was done by a small group of people. I respect each person's legal right to fight for what they think they are entitled to under the law."

But with what has happened, Ms Yuen has strong doubts as to whether the legal battle she and other supporters have been backing will bear any fruit. "In the long run, they [abode seekers] need to decide for themselves whether it is worth them biding their time here."

Linda Yeung (linday@scmp.com) is a staff writer for the Post's editorial pages.