When perseverance wins. Or, if you prefer: when the fight for rights brings results. This is how the story, which a group of activists has been carrying forward for a long time in Hong Kong in favour of the "right of abode", may be summarized. From this month onward, after years of controversy, there comes into effect a new law that will allow the natural children of the people living in Hong Kong, who live themselves in the People's Republic of China, adults by now, to get the permission of residing in the former British colony which, since July 1997, has become a special administrative Region. This measure will thus finally allow many families to reunite.
A success (though not a definitive one) for the heterogeneous movement supporting the right of abode that in those years has battled bravely with the local power and, indirectly, with Beijing. A success starting far away and that has cost years of engagement during which frustration and hope have alternated.
A quick flashback. August 1999, Caritas Headquarters in Tsuen Wan. Young Yu Xiaoqing asks father Franco Mella, from Pime: "Kam Ciai, is there any hope for our case?". "What do you think?" "I am ready to fight". "Thus, let's go on until the end!"
Kam Ciai is the Cantonese name of Mella. Living on Chinese land since 1974, father Franco, 62, has always combined evangelization with direct social activity. Yu Xiaoqing is one of the many people who is waiting for the happy ending of the "long march" for the right of abode. Political choices, codified into norms, have prevented until now children born in China from living with a parent who held a Hong Kong identity card, or a Chinese person living with a spouse from Hong Kong.
That has forced the families hit by restrictions to stay divided, some in the former British colony and some in continental China, or to live underground.
On last January 29th activists celebrated the procedural change: the Hong Kong Supreme Court of Appeal's verdict has been substantially recognized. This judgement stood on the side of the activists supporting the right of abode. A few days earlier - on January 14th in Beijing - the Hong Kong Secretary for Home Affairs, Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong announced the new law.
It is impossible to mention all of the groups that contributed to the
positive development of this verdict: Association for Family Reunions,
Association for Parents Fighting for Right of Abode, Society for Community
Organisation, New Women Arrivals League, Mainland-Hong Kong Families Rights
These bodies have been supported by lay and religious groups. Among the religious ones stands out the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong that, in 1999, marched out with a pastoral letter criticizing the government, which was signed by then-bishop Wu and the auxiliaries Zen (a future Cardinal) and Tong (a pastor today). Through the years, the diocese has continued to support the demonstrators, particularly through the Justice and Peace Commission.
Though an important result has been achieved, mobilization does not stop. The procedures put into effect will not allow, in fact, the reuniting of those families that have been divided within a short span of time. Requests to get the right of abode may be presented from the 1st of April only by those who, before November 1st 2001, were younger than 14 years of age at the moment that one of his/her natural parents got the Hong Kong identity card. Applications will be divided in slots: the first applicants' group will be composed of the children of those people who got the identity card by December 31st 1979. To those limitations should be added the respect of a maximum of 80,000 permits.
At the launch of the new rule not everyone exulted. There are those who fear that this opening may favour false application for family reunion, to the point that the Chinese government has committed to evaluate the dubious forms in cooperation with Hong Kong authorities, without excluding the DNA test in order to assess paternity and maternity.
A certain diffidence is spreading against the potential "new arrivals" but, luckily, there is no longer the psychosis due to the invasion which spread some time ago. In the past, the figures provided by the government - one million and a half people - were so big that they fed the worries of socio-economical upheavals. Today the order of magnitude is different: it goes from tens of thousands of people, according to the statements of Minister Lee, to the unofficial data which consider no more than half million applications. There are two main reasons explaining this reduction: years have passed by, leaving deep tracks both on the lives of divided families and on the relations between China and Hong Kong. The "younger brothers" of yesterday are turning into Chinese power, the international leader of the new millennium.
In any case, the word "end" to this whole story has not yet been written (one worry, for example, is the fate of women and children born of Hong Kong citizens who have died during these years). This is why mobilization goes on even after the announcement of the new rule, as is shown by the picture taken during the birth anniversary of the movement, celebrated on January 29th (published at the beginning of this article).
The person who sent these pictures, Chan Choi-wan, is an "exceptional" witness. She was born in the province of Guangdong. When she was 19 years old she moved to Hong Kong with her parents and her brother. To offer a better future to his family, her father used to work on the island, far from his family. After a few months Choi-wan found herself with other protesters, defending her right to remain in Hong Kong. The satisfaction from the Court of Appeal's verdict had disappeared, and in its place there was the worry of a forced repatriation. Her permit expired in 2000 and the young girl found herself protesting on many occasions next to father Mella, well-known for his social commitment that started with the defence of "boat brides". This expression is used to define those China-born women who married fishermen from Hong Kong, after the 1978 start of the reform policy of "open doors" adopted by the Chinese government. Boat brides were forced to live on the boats: to illegally land meant running the risk of being arrested and expulsed; from here the fight for the recognition of their rights.
But let's go back to Chan Choi-wan. Meeting the missionary changes her vision: she realizes that she is not fighting only to gain a better life for herself but also for universal values such as equality and justice.
She starts attending the community led by father Mella and getting interested in Christianity. Even without a deep knowledge of religious matters, she is impressed by the attention paid by the missionaries and the Hong Kong diocese to social issues. This path leads her to an important moment in 2002 when she is baptized taking the name of Giovanna. It was exactly during those days that she joined the pickets at Chater Garden in the centre of Hong Kong while father Mella was carrying on his hunger strike. The following year, Giovanna's vicissitudes result in her getting the identity card. Though among the luckiest ones, she does not stop engaging the movement for the right of abode. The Pime fathers, Mella and Gianni Criveller, introduce Giovanna and many others to Don Milani's figure (see box on the following page).
This is how, looked after by Giovanna, the Right of Abode University and schools for young people come to life. In this process, a central role has been played (and is still played) by father Franco Mella, protagonist of many pages of the history of the movement for rights in Hong Kong. And to think that his commitment for the movement started by chance... On February 6th 1999, Kam Ciai missed the boat that should have taken him to visit a drug-addicted friend in prison. Waiting for the next boat, he read a newspaper article describing the protest of a group of sons and daughters reclaiming the right of citizenship in front of governmental offices. From that moment he started sharing the vicissitudes of the people seeking asylum and the project at the University.
Today father Franco takes stock of the experience: "For 12 years we have continued to insist that an unjust law abrogating the previous one, in our favour, was unacceptable. Everyone was wondering whether we would manage to make it. Our answer was perseverance in non-violent protest, combined with study and in-depth analysis of all human rights. We knew that one day all that would produce its fruits. We are reaching now the true harmony, after 500 demonstrations, press conferences, hunger strikes".
The fight seems to have been won but Kam Ciai promises: "Our mobilization will not stop until everyone gets the right of abode. It has been a long process during which we have not seen any result for a long time. But we will not be content now that the goal is getting closer".
Don Milani "transplanted" in China
On September 13th 2002 the Right of Abode University was born from one of Father Mella's idea which refers to the experience of Don Milani in Barbiana. The students of this informal university were first of all those people who did not have the chance to receive an education, being deprived of the right of abode in Hong Kong. The goal was to offer everyone (children included) a wide and universal training. With such an initiative, the promoters intended to give a boost to many people who were discouraged after having fought hard battles without getting results. In 2004 the University opened to all citizens in Hong Kong interested in taking part in this education experiment.
With the support of the diocese Justice and Peace Commission, courses were organized in different domains. A particular space is dedicated to languages, from English (with the well-tested English Corner) to Spanish, French, and Italian-not to mention Chinese writing. The English Corner is useful for those people who want to improve their English but it is also an opportunity to stop passers-by by talking about the right of abode and other campaigns, like the international campaign against the death penalty. Considering the aims of the Right of Abode University, the attention paid to politics, history and law is not surprising.
Stands in the streets and lessons are often integrated with music, mainly with songs with sociopolitical content, which have made Mella and his guitar well-known. In an eight-year span of time the project has drawn more than 400 students, thanks to dozens of teachers who have offered for free their time to carry forward Father Mella's intuition, who right now divides his time between China and Hong Kong.
A curiosity: Father Franco was the inspiration for one of the main characters of Ordinary Heroes, a 1999 film dedicated to the civil and social rights movements that animated Hong Kong during the 1970s and 1980s. This work was selected as the best Hong Kong movie for the 72° edition of the Oscars, though it did not receive a final nomination. Well, one of the "ordinary heroes" of the movie is an Italian priest who speaks Cantonese, a role played by Anthony Wong. On the frontline to defend the rights of the most helpless, the priest quotes Mao Zedong, sings and plays the guitar to hearten those who protest with him. This is more or less what father Franco Mella does in his real life. (L.D.)
(Translation from the italian language by Elena Dini)