Newly declassified documents seen by HKFP show that Chung Sze-yuen, former member of the Executive Council, suggested in 1985 that Hong Kong British nationals should be able to pass on British nationality to their children after the handover in 1997, if their offspring were born in other British dependent territories or the UK.

This was ultimately rejected by Geoffrey Howe, the UK’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (FCO) at the time.

The information was revealed in a set of 1985 documents stored in the National Archives in Kew, London and declassified in August. The set of documents was entitled Future of Hong Kong: nationality and citizenship.

Chung Sze-yuen; British National (Overseas) passport. Photo: Apple Daily/Wikimedia Commons.

Hong Kong and the UK were preparing the new British National (Overseas) status that year. A white paper was to be published on the matter in order to replace the British Dependent Territories citizen (BDTC) status, which Hong Kong people would not be able to keep after the handover. The new status would not be transmissible to their children, and carried no right of abode in the UK.

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In a last minute bid, Chung argued at the Executive Council that the nationality should be transmissible for children of BN(O)s born after 1997. The suggestion was recorded in a confidential document of the UK Home Office in September 1985.

“His justification for this proposal is that the parents of the children in question were BDTCs until July 1997, and were only deprived of their power to transmit their status because of Chinese objections,” the document read.

“He did not consider that this proposal would be inconsistent with the Chinese view of nationality, since he argued that the Chinese were unlikely to object to children of BN(O)s born after 1997 acquiring, for example, US citizenship by birth in the USA.”

The Home Office document reporting Chung Sze-yuen’s proposal. Photo: HKFP.

Loophole for the wealthy

The Home Office’s comment on the matter gave several reasons why the proposal should be rejected: it would be contrary to the spirit and intention of the agreement made between the UK and China, contrary to the British Nationality Act 1981 that citizenship should not be established by birth alone, and it was already determined that children of BN(O)s could acquire British nationality if the status holders had settled in the UK or in its dependent territories – like Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands.

Another reason given in the document was that “only those wealthy enough to be able to arrange for their children to be born outside Hong Kong could benefit from such an amendment.”

“It seems invidious to create a loophole which would undoubtedly be seen as devised solely for the rich,” it said.

Geoffrey Howe’s messages to Margaret Thatcher and Hong Kong. Photo: HKFP.

Anthony Galsworthy of the Hong Kong Department of the FCO then wrote to David Wilson, also of the FCO and later governor of Hong Kong, saying that Chung’s proposal did not enjoy the general support of other members of the Executive Council: “It is clearly unacceptable”. Wilson agreed.

In October, 1985, Howe wrote to Hong Kong in a confidential telegram, stating that Chung’s plan was not accepted by UK ministers, based on the above reasons.

Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

On October 1, Howe also wrote to the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, warning about the political sensitivity of the issue when passing the order on the new nationality status for Hong Kong people.

“We can expect continued criticism both for our refusal to grant right of abode in the UK to BDTCs, and for our failure to obtain Chinese agreement to a transmissible form of nationality for BDTCs,” he wrote. “Given however that EXCO [Executive Council] has agreed to this Order I think that opposition will be of manageable proportions.”

“We will also need to be careful to bear Chinese sensitivities in mind… The Chinese will be watching carefully,” he added.

Exchange between David Akers-Jones and London. Photo: HKFP.

Gibraltar connection

Before Chung’s proposal was rejected, Hong Kong and London had in fact discussed a similar issue.

David Akers-Jones, chief secretary of the Hong Kong government at the time, sent a telegram to the FCO on August 15, 1985 raising the question of nationality of children of Hong Kong parents born in Gibraltar.

Gibraltar National Day in 2013. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

He asked if children born in Gibraltar after January 1, 1983 – when the new British Nationality Act 1981 had come into force – to parents settled in Hong Kong would be regarded as “BDTCs who acquire their citizenship from a connection with Gibraltar” and hence qualify as UK nationals, according to the rules of the then European Economic Community.

Five days after his query, the FCO replied they were not yet able to provide the answer, as there were points arising from the question that needed to be looked at closely.

Message from Yvonne Veale of the Nationality and the Treaty Department of the FCO on the Gibraltar connection. Photo: HKFP.

On August 21 that year, Yvonne Veale of the Nationality and the Treaty Department of the FCO wrote to a legal advisor saying that the answer to Akers-Jones’ question “would seem to be a clear ‘yes’.”

“The only way to prevent Gibraltar being used as a loophole in this way would seem to be by a tightening up of their immigration controls on pregnant women,” she wrote.

Messages from Edward Youde and Gibraltar. Photo: HKFP.

The FCO also asked the Attorney-General of Gibraltar to give an answer on the issue in August that year. Two months later, the then Hong Kong governor Edward Youde urged the FCO to provide a final answer, as Gibraltar had yet to give one.

A reply from Gibraltar was only sent on November 11, that its Attorney-General thought that the answer to Akers-Jones’ question would be a “no”, since children born in the British territory would only acquire British nationality if at least one of their parents was a BDTC having a connection with Gibraltar, or having settled there.

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Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.