Children Desperately Seek Hong Kong Dads

A wave of mainland kids enter the colony illegally to join their fathers before the July 1 handover to China.

The mother had ignored calls to surrender, so the authorities took no chances. Twenty immigration officers, with a dozen firemen in reserve, moved in to seize Chung Chau Chuk-ngan and her eight-year-old daughter and whisk them across the border to China.

Ugly scenes such as this one have become common in Hong Kong in the final days leading to the British handover of its colony to China. Hong Kong is coping with a tide of children entering from the mainland illegally because their parents believe that the children will be able to remain after July 1, the date of the handover.

The territory's post-1997 charter, the Basic Law, guarantees that children born to parents who are Hong Kong residents have the right to live here. But there is a catch: They have to enter legally to claim that right.

"If they sneak into the territory before their status [as sons and daughters of Hong Kong residents] can be confirmed, they will be sent back," Chief Executive-Designate Tung Chee Hwa said in a recent TV interview. Mr. Tung will replace British Gov. Chris Patten after the handover.

When the Basic Law was written in the late 1980s, nobody fully realized the consequences of the economic and social integration of Hong Kong into China.

These days, 80 percent of Hong Kong's factories have moved across the border to take advantage of lower production costs there. Every day, tens of thousands of people, mostly men, cross the border to work in China as factory managers, overseers, truck drivers, and so on. Some older men have purchased retirement homes there too, taking advantage of the much lower costs.

Inevitably, they meet and marry Chinese women, have children, and, naturally enough, want to bring their families back to join them in Hong Kong.

That's the problem. By mutual agreement, the Chinese issue only 150 one-way permits per day. In effect, these are exit permits, allowing mainlanders to stay in Hong Kong permanently. About one-third are reserved for children.

The result is a scarcity of permits and the inevitable consequence - corruption. Wives and children in China without connections or unwilling to pay exorbitant bribes may have to wait years to get the documents. Many decide to risk their lives and savings to hire "snakeheads," immigrant smugglers, to try to enter Hong Kong illegally.

Since January, Hong Kong authorities have apprehended about 1,400 illegal child immigrants, compared with fewer than 100 during the same period a year ago. Many end up in the "surrender center" on the 13th floor of immigration headquarters waiting to explain why they should be allowed to stay.

They often have heart-rending tales to tell. Teenager Cheng Xianglen sneaked into Hong Kong, she says, to take care of a mentally ill father and her younger brother. Another pre-teen youth, Chen Guangming, explains that her father has a serious health problem. She's afraid that if she is deported to China, she might never see him again.

Despite the sad stories, and despite the ugly images of mothers and children being led away in handcuffs, the territory's government is reluctant to take measures that would even hint at a relaxation of border restrictions. "It would open the floodgates," says David Chu, a member of Hong Kong's legislative council.

Hong Kong officials say about 40,000 children now living in China have the right to live in Hong Kong. That doesn't sound too bad against the territory's population of more than 6 million. But authorities in China's neighboring Guangdong Province claimed recently that the true number is more like 130,000. Unofficial estimates range up to 400,000.

If the higher figure were accurate, it would be more than the number of children now attending primary schools in Hong Kong. Letting in that number of children would put enormous strains on schools, social services, and housing. "The rate of entry is growing faster than the solutions," Mr. Chu says.

The last time Hong Kong faced the prospect of such a large and sudden influx of immigrants was nearly 50 years ago in the aftermath of China's civil war as refugees on the defeated Nationalist side fled to the colony.

In recent years, the Chinese have cooperated with Hong Kong in controlling migration. The Chinese Army and paramilitary police routinely turn away Chinese who are under the illusion that because Hong Kong is becoming part of China, anyone who wants to can move there.

A floating population in China, now estimated to be as high as 90 million, is made up of rootless unemployed peasants from the countryside who gravitate to the cities to find work. Hong Kong, which easily will be China's richest region, would be an obvious magnet for them.

Chief Executive-Designate Tung considered the problem sufficiently dire to skip the formal inauguration of Hong Kong's new suspension bridge (the third-longest in the world) recently to meet with his Chinese counterparts to try to develop more orderly and clear exit-permit procedures.

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