20 Years of the Right of Abode Movement: Troubling the line between Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese people

Activists and supporters gather in the same park where twenty years ago a tent city was set up to protest government immigration policies

On June 26, a small group gathered in Hong Kong’s Chater Park to celebrate and commemorate 20 years of the Right to Abode movement—the struggle of hundreds of families separated by the Hong Kong-China border to reunite. While two decades of protest have won some people permanent residency in Hong Kong, thousands of others continue to be separated from their families, and as popular sentiment against the Chinese state continues to find expression through racism against individuals from mainland China, the Right to Abode movement remains marginal. Organizers explained that the turn out is so small this year, in part because families are nervous about encountering hostility from Hong Kongers, who were also out protesting in the area, in the thousands, against the extradition bill.

The roots of the Right to Abode movement go back to Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China in 1997. With the handover, Hong Kong had to develop immigration policies that were independent of the British empire’s policies. Although the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s constitution) outlines that mainland Chinese citizens who have a parent with Hong Kong permanent residency have a right to live in Hong Kong, following the handover the government did not adhere to this policy. 

The government’s resistance to allowing families to reunite led to a prolonged battle in the courts. In 1999, Hong Kong’s highest court, the Court of Final Appeal, ruled that the government was constitutionally obliged to allow children born in mainland China to be reunited with their permanent-residency bearing parent or parents in Hong Kong. In response, the Hong Kong government mounted a public campaign broadcasting anti-immigrant sentiment and claiming that obliging this constitutional right would result in over 1.5 million new migrants gaining Right of Abode in Hong Kong, when only 200,000 people would qualify under the Basic Law. They made the classic xenophobic argument that such an influx would take public services and resources away from Hong Kongers. At the same time, the government also asked the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress to reinterpret the Basic Law.

The government’s anti-immigrant attack was successful. On June 26, the Standing Committee reinterpreted the Basic Law to maintain restrictions on who could access right of abode. Another court case advocating for right of abode seekers failed, producing a ruling in early 2002 that put thousands of people at risk of deportation. In response, people facing deportation set up a protest camp in a public square, where 20 migrants were arrested and deported.

While some of the government’s restrictions eventually eased up, the government still has a cap of accepting 150 people from the mainland to make this claim each day. In order to even get to Hong Kong to apply for ROA, mainlanders first need to apply for special one-way permits to leave China and provide certificates proving their entitlement from Hong Kong immigration. Even with these permits and certificates in hand, migrants may still be turned away at the border. Such restrictions from both the Hong Kong and mainland governments may bar people who are marginalized and lack economic or political clout. The Right of Abode Parents Association estimates that nearly 70,000 children have been reunited, but 110,000 continue to remain separated. They estimate that another 70,000 are unable to apply for ROA because they were over the age of 14 when their parents or parent gained permanent residency in Hong Kong. 

Borders keep families apart

Ada Fu has been part of the Right of Abode struggle for twenty years and came to the demonstration with her son

Ada Fu was born in Fujian Province. Her parents came to Hong Kong in the 1950s in a wave of migration that began after World War II. While Hong Kong’s population was just 600,000 in 1945, by 1951 it had nearly quadrupled to over 2 million. In the decade that followed, 1 million people migrated to Hong Kong. Like many migrant families all over the world, Ada’s did not all migrate together: her grandparents came first, then her father, then her mother, then her brother.

It wasn’t until 1999 that Ada tried to come to Hong Kong, just months after the Court of Final Appeal clarified Hong Kong’s responsibility to maintain its Basic Law. Ada explains, “I thought I could just apply, get residency, and go back to China—I initially didn’t want to stay here because I felt my family had left me in Fujian. But instead the process was full of delays. The government kept saying wait, reapply, wait.” The Court of Final Appeal’s 2002 judgement excluded Ada from the right to apply for residency. “We occupied this park to protest the decision, but the police came and arrested and deported people. Throughout those three and a half years of struggle, I was able to reconnect with my family. The struggle allowed my to realize that they hadn’t abandoned me – it was government regulations that kept us apart. But because of the struggle, I was also deported.”

After her deportation, Ada continued to come back to visit Hong Kong in short bursts to stay part of the struggle. Eventually, she gained permanent residency, and she continues to stand alongside others who are still waiting for the right to be reunited with their families. From her perspective, the insistence on a hard line between “Hong Kongers” and mainland Chinese people doesn’t make sense when the vast majority of Hong Kong families have current and recent ties to mainland China. 

“Rule of Law” and the enforcement of colonial borders

While a small group of lawyers and pan-democrats protested the Standing Committee’s intervention on the basis that it violated Hong Kong’s right to interpret its own Basic Law, there was nowhere near the widespread outrage that other attempts by the Chinese state to intervene in Hong Kong’s legal system have sparked. Rather, the popular embrace of anti-mainland xenophobia legitimized Beijing’s intervention, and showed that the Chinese state’s interest in maintaining social stability in Hong Kong has little to do with the wellbeing of working-class Chinese people. 

Virtually all Chinese Hong Kongers are one or two generations removed from Chinese migrants, even those who are against Chinese immigration today. Earlier migrants from China were only able to come to Hong Kong because under colonial rule, migration across the Chinese border was incredibly unrestricted until 1980, largely because of a lack of administrative capacity to enforce immigration rules. That being said, the colonial administration also had unrestricted powers to deport any Chinese migrant, while British subjects had the legal right to live and work anywhere in the empire, though in practice this right was constrained by racial, economic, and class dimensions. 

Hong Kong’s brief history of border control reveals its colonial roots, and the way that it has been used, by the pre-handover colonial administration, the current government, and the Chinese state, to target populations left out of the social and legal definitions of “citizenship.” In 2005 the ROA movement started a Right of Abode University to create a space where migrants could meet, hang out, and access services. Eventually, the university expanded to offer services not only to mainland Chinese migrants, but migrants from other countries, refugees, and local homeless people as well, recognizing and demonstrating that many social groups are constructed and kept outside the category of “citizenship.” While Hong Kong’s xenophobic border excludes mainland Chinese people, it also excludes other migrants and refugees, including Hong Kong’s massive population of migrant domestic workers, who have no rights to residency, no matter how much of their lives they spend working here. While the ROA movement was made possible through constitutional provisions that exclude non-Chinese migrants, its demands highlight the broader problem of migrant workers rights under the Chinese state, and gesture to common class interests across colonial and post-colonial borders.

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