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January 11, 2000


Air Pollution & Right-to-Abode: Hong Kong Citizens Face Huge Challenges at the Start of a New Century

by Edmund Tsang

The editorial cartoon on December 27, 1999 in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), one of two English-language newspapers in the former British colony, captures a facet of Hong Kong that many people in the United States do not usually associate with this area that is now known as the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. A department store clerk describes a scene on the Sunday after Christmas in Causeway Bay, one of the main commercial and residential areas in Hong Kong, in which shoppers are wearing gas masks: "Everyone is on holiday except me and the pollution."

A news brief in SCMP on the same date announced: "Pollution was 'very high' in Causeway Bay yesterday, despite the fact that it was a public holiday. The roadside index hit 107, having been at between 80 to 90 on Thursday. The index in Central and Mongkok [two other main commercial and residential areas] yesterday also exceeded 90. An official said weakening winds mean pollution which built up due to heavy traffic last week had not dispersed." A pollution index of 50 to 100 is rated "High" while 100 to 200 is rated "Very High." A "Very High" advisory means people with respiratory impairments or the very old or very young should stay indoors.

With headlines on air quality like this one last summer -- "No. 1 Signal Hoisted As Air Pollution Hits Record" -- it is no wonder that Hong Kong has been named "Childhood Asthma Capital of Asia" in a study published by SCMP on July 9, 1999.

The air this December in Nathan Road, a busy thoroughfare in Kowloon, was particularly strong with the smell of gasoline and car exhaust, as experienced by this reporter, who has been visiting Hong Kong every December for the past ten years and is a native son.

Louis Mann, a civil/environmental engineer educated in the U.S., said that prior to this year, air-quality monitoring stations were placed at a level well above ground so that they did not yield meaningful data -- equivalent to a height corresponding to the "7th floor" of a building (8th floor by the U.S. way of counting). Now, roadside air pollution stations measure the quality of air breathed by pedestrians, and the number of letters-to-editor about air pollution increases, Mann said.

Mann said the South China Morning Post, which usually represents the views of the establishment, especially when Hong Kong was a crown colony, publishes two to three letters a week from citizens complaining about air pollution. A typical tone is set by one of two letters-to- editor found on the December 29, 1999 issue in which the writer asserts "the Government isn't serious about dealing with our air pollution problem." Mann said many letter writers complain that "the Environmental Protection Department is always talking about monitoring the air but doesn't talk about plans to improve air quality."

During the Christmas season of 1999, Causeway Bay was as usual packed shoulder-to- shoulder with pedestrians and bumper-to-bumper with automobiles of every kind, and the shoppers seemed to defy a survey published in SCMP last August. Then, a Citizen Party poll of shopkeepers in Causeway Bay suggested that worsening air quality is turning off shoppers.

A baby boy delivered in the departure hall of Chek Lap Kok International Airport captured the attention of some Hong Kong citizens who are beginning to wonder what "one- nation, two-systems," a special status granted to this former British colony that is now called a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, really means. A judge in the Court of First Instance ruled on December 24, 1999 that Chong Fung-yuen, who was delivered two years ago at the airport clinic to a mainland mother visiting on a two-way visa and a father who is residing in Hong Kong and awaiting his own right-of-abode case, was born in Hong Kong and therefore automatically a permanent resident. The Justice stated in the ruling that there was "no ambiguity and no doubt as to the legal meaning" of the Basic Law, which was negotiated between the British and Chinese governments prior to the colony being returned to China on July 1, 1998, to guarantee its autonomy.

But when a representative of the Hong Kong Government indicated that it plans to appeal the case of toddler Chong to the Court of Appeal, proponents of self autonomy raised alarms, saying that this is beginning to look like the events of past year.

Last June, the Government asked the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing for a reinterpretation of the Basic Law in order to overturn an earlier decision by the Court of Final Appeal of Hong Kong regarding the status of permanent residency for immigrants' relatives from mainland China. The Government previously lost a ruling at the Court of Appeal favoring the right-to-abode of relatives of immigrants, and in January 1999, the Court of Final Appeal reaffirmed the right-to-abode and ruled against the Government. But the CFA reversed itself in early December 1999 by ruling that the ultimate power to interpret the Basic Law lies with Beijing. The incident drew criticisms from human rights activists at both the local and international levels. In a survey circulated by the Government last spring to bolster its claim and, by some, to play on the fears of the Hong Kong public, the secretary for security said more than 1.6 million mainlanders would have rights to abode in one year if CFA's ruling were enforced, with 692,000 immediately eligible for permanent residency.

Ng Hing-Woo, who owns an art-supply business located in Wan Chai, said "the burden on the Hong Kong Government and therefore ultimately the Hong Kong people" to support the added immigrants will be "tremendous." A family of three who recently immigrated to Hong Kong from mainland China could receive from the Government a monthly payment of more than HK$10,000 (US$1 = HK$7.77) to subsidize housing, health, education, and living costs. During the later years of colonial governance, the British-appointed Government of Hong Kong established a number of welfare programs using surplus revenues generated by selling land at a time when real estate prices were spiraling upwards, including welfare programs to assist immigrants from mainland China. Now that housing prices have dropped, so has revenue, and the Hong Kong Government has been running a deficit for the past two years.

"Those who are crying that human rights have been violated don't really understand the picture in Hong Kong," added Ng for emphasis to explain why he supports the Hong Kong Government's appeal to Beijing to reinterpret the Basic Law.

Regarding the present case involving children born to women entering on a visiting permit from mainland China while they are Hong Kong, the impact is much smaller because there were only 3,660 such children in 1997 and 2,331 in the first six months of 1999. However small the statistics, there are those in Hong Kong who fear that the Hong Kong Government, once it loses in the Court of Appeal and the Court of Final Appeal, may yet turn to Beijing again to overturn decisions that do not meet its approval.

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