Before Hong Kong and Macau returned to Chinese rule, Britain urged Portugal to tighten its criteria for granting nationality to Macau residents to deter Hongkongers from asking the same, according to declassified statements.
The revelation comes to light in an October 1985 letter written by Douglas Hurd, former British home secretary, to Geoffrey Howe, then British foreign secretary.
According to Hurd, any Macanese granted a Portuguese nationality may live and work in Britain or anywhere in the European Community, now the European Union.
“With Macau perhaps returning to the control of China at the same time as Hong Kong, it may well be that there will be many Macanese of Portuguese nationality who will decide that Europe rather than Macau is the place to be.”
Hurd also warned that Hongkongers may try to obtain Portuguese passports to access Britain.
“Hong Kong [British Dependant Territories Citizens] may try to obtain Portuguese passports by whatever means in order to gain a right of entry to the United Kingdom.
“Surely it is clear that we may come under some pressure, because of the position of Portuguese nationals in Macau, to allow freer access to the United Kingdom to Hong Kong [British Dependent Territories Citizens] than is presently permitted.”
Howe responded that he will not propose dialogues with immigration officials in Macau, as the then Hong Kong governor feared resentment if Britain continued to exert pressure on Portugal, the South China Morning Post said.
Britain handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997 while granting residency rights to 50,000 people. Others received the British National (Overseas) passport, which permitted a six-month stay but only as a visitor.
But the fate of those who managed to become British residents is also unclear. Just before the handover, the Independent reported that racism lingered in British politics, with many Members of Parliament speaking out against Hong Kong immigration.
For one, Tory backbencher David Wilshire reportedly said, “Just say to them we’re full up. I’m ever so sorry, there isn’t any room left! We haven’t the housing for them, we haven’t the jobs.”
Portugal, for its part, ignored Britain’s discrimination plan. When Macau returned to China in 1999, residents born before November 20, 1981 were granted Portuguese passports and citizenships, allowing them to live and work in Lisbon and other European countries.
Hongkongers have since called for rights similar to the Macanese — especially amid movements to ban a pro-independence party.
Craig Choy Ki, a lawyer and advocate of BN(O) passport holders, told SCMP:
“The declassified files highlight how low and disgraceful Britain was in treating Hongkongers. The reality had already demonstrated that what Britain had been worrying about did not happen – Macau residents had not flooded into Britain [despite being offered Portuguese nationality].
“Britain should rectify its mistakes before it is too late.”
The declassified files are available at the National Archives in London.