Charles Elliot spent most of his early adult life in India, first with his father and later as a sub-lieutenant serving the Royal Navy, stationed in Calcutta. That would explain the presence of a company of sepoys on board the HMS Sulphur, one of the British squadrons sent by Elliot—who was by then the British plenipotentiary in charge of trade with China—to hoist the British flag at what is now known as Possession Point on Hong Kong island more than 150 years ago in January 1841. Elliot, says Nigel Cameron in his Illustrated History of Hong Kong, had especially requested warships from India to accompany him when he arrived in China in 1835, six years before the British seized Hong Kong in 1841.
"We had traders coming to Canton (now Ghangzhou) even before Elliot's arrival. Some records show that there was private trading in opium, tea, cotton and a number of other goods between the two countries and that these traders did have an outpost in Hong Kong," says K.B. Rathi, who himself carries on that trading tradition as the Hong Kong representative of Birla Enterprises. He came to Hong Kong 36 years ago and has since then been looking after the Birla interests there.
That initial population of Indian traders, militia and later the core of the territory's police force grew into a 35,000-strong community just before World War II. The British, wary of the local Chinese population's political loyal-ties, relied mostly on two Indian infantry battalions, the 2/14 Punjabis and the 5/7 Rajputs, to defend Hong Kong against the Japanese onslaught.
"We now have a community of around 25,000 people, mostly traders, shop-owners and some industrialists," Rathi estimates. According to him, nearly 10 per cent of Hong Kong's external trade is generated by Indian traders and industrialists. "Some of us also have manufacturing plants in China, making watches and jewellery. Others are into metals trading and even printing," he says.
And now, with the British leaving, the former protectors are protesting that they are being left unprotected. At the root of their unhappiness, says a third generation Hong Kong-born Indian, Raj Sital, who now heads the Indian General Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, is a document that Britain created initially to allay the very fears being expressed now. Says he: "Britain gave us what is called the British Dependent Territory Citizen (BDTC) status, a piece of paper that says we are entitled to British citizenship for 50 years from the date the status was granted. It is not transferable to our children and now the British are asking us to surrender the BDTC status for what is known as a British National Overseas passport."
The British National Overseas passport, or BNO as it is more commonly known, gives the right of visa-free entry to over 80 countries that have reciprocal arrangements with Britain, but carries no right of abode in any, even in Britain.
"It is similar to the British Citizen passport that was issued to Indians in Kenya and Uganda and in other Commonwealth countries where for whatever reason Commonwealth citizens were not given indigenous nationality," Sital explains. Neither document confers the right to live in Britain or in any other territory and has no value except for travellers.
What worries people like Sital, who have a stake in Hong Kong and for whom India could well be a foreign country, is that the Chinese nationality laws that will come into effect on July 1, 1997, the day of the takeover, specifically exclude any non-ethnic Chinese from becoming Chinese nationals. "The law says that you would have to be born into a Chinese lineage to be a Chinese national," he points out. That law will make more than 7,000 people of Indian descent stateless.
"Of the 25,000 people, around 18,000 hold on to their Indian citizenship, or are nationals of some other country," he notes. "The rest can technically fall back on the BNO passports, but that does not give them any civic rights or the right of abode anywhere." India, in recent years, has given assurances to non-resident nationals like Sital that they would be welcomed back if the political outlook in Hong Kong changes for the worse. But as Sital adds: "Political assurances have been given, but these do not include immediate citizenship. The same assurance was given by British Prime Minister John Major...that Britain would not close its doors on the minorities in Hong Kong if the situation changes here. But that is not what we want. We want to be treated equally here in Hong Kong where we were born, where we live and where we hold a major economic stake."
There are, however, some signs that China may accommodate the minorities. For the first time since the nationality debate started, China has conceded that it may have to change the nationality laws. This followed a delegation to Beijing by the Indian General Chamber of Commerce in late March. Says Sital: "We have been lobbying Beijing for the past five years and every year we send a delegation. This time, Lu Ping, the head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, finally agreed that the nationality law has to be changed to accommodate the minorities. But still, there is nothing concrete."
A senior vice-president of a Hong Kong conglomerate with strong links with China, who did not want to be named, said that at the bottom of the issue is the need of all Hong Kong residents for a form of insurance to cover a period of uncertainty. "You buy life-insurance not because you want to die, but because there is a possibility that you will die and leave your family in need," said this executive, who is also a third generation Indian. "People really do not want to leave. Look at what happened when Singapore offered 50,000 places for families, only 4,000 went."
Similarly, when Britain offered a British nationality scheme for 50,000 other similarly qualified persons, not many took up the offer of a full British citizenship. "Most of the Indians here have no love for politics, we are here to make money and by doing that we help this economy," he adds. "But we are not being treated well by all parties. Make the offer, tell us that they care about us, that's all that will be needed."
There is another category of Indians: those who came to Hong Kong in the past five years since the Indian economy opened up. Anand Trivedi manages the Credit Lyonnais India Subcontinent Fund. "Being relatively new to the scene here, the debate over the citizenship issue does not concern me. I also have no personal benchmark to judge the changes that may take place after the takeover. But as far as the Fund is concerned, we have an option to move to Singapore and that option will be seriously considered," says Trivedi, who came to Hong Kong in 1994 armed with an MBA from Columbia University, US.
Mayank Mehta, managing director of R.B. Diamond Sales, a member of the Indian-held giant Rosy Blue group in Belgium, is also new to Hong Kong. "We now plan to open a subsidiary in Thailand as a safeguard against the uncertainties in Hong Kong," he says. "Although we are optimistic about its future, we need to have a fall-back," he adds.
His apprehensions are echoed by another diamond dealer, Ashish Jain, marketing director of Alma Diamonds (HK). Jain says the market in Hong Kong has become uncertain because of the worries over 1997. "We also have a problem of getting trained Indian employees to work for us because of visa restrictions being imposed by the Hong Kong government. They want us to hire locally, but locals do not have the expertise we get from our Indian employees," he complains. Alma Diamonds also plans to strengthen its Bangkok office to meet any eventualities. In fact, Jain's difficulties in getting visas reflects the vulnerability of Indians working as petty shopkeepers and migrant labour. Come July 1997, they are afraid of being pushed out by the waves of poor Chinese expected to come in search of a better livelihood.
"We remember well how the North Vietnamese pushed us out of Saigon despite assuring us initially that our property and business would be protected," Sharbudeen, a small-time Indian businessman who came to Hong Kong from Vietnam in 1976, was quoted as saying by the London-based Gemini News Service in a recent article. The Chinese, he believes, will probably make it difficult for poorer Indians to stay on while at the same time wooing rich businessmen, whose capital and commercial contacts they need.