Introducing ‘Decolonising Britishness? The 1981 British Nationality Act and the Identity Crisis of Hong Kong Elites’

Today we are introducing an article ‘Decolonising Britishness? The 1981 British Nationality Act and the Identity Crisis of Hong Kong Elites’ by Chi-kwan Mark, Royal Holloway.

The introduction and passage of the 1981 Nationality Act coincided with discussions on the future of Hong Kong’s sovereignty in 1997, which triggered an identity crisis among the Hong Kong elites. This article by Chi-kwan Mark is about the 1981 British Nationality Act through the prism of Hong Kong. It examines how the Act and subsequent amendments affected the connection between the United Kingdom and Hong Kong against the backdrop of the 1997 question.

On 30 October 1981, the British Nationality Act received Royal Assent. Bringing nationality law in line with immigration policy, the Act created three separate categories of citizenship, including ‘British Dependent Territories Citizen’ (BDTC) for existing British dependent territories such as Hong Kong. During the deliberations over the bill, the Unofficial Members of the Executive and Legislative Councils in Hong Kong played an important role in lobbying the Thatcher government to protect the status and rights of British subjects in Hong Kong. With the emergence of the 1997 question, the Unofficial Members feared that the United Kingdom was distancing itself from Hong Kong as a prelude to decolonisation. No sooner had the 1981 British Nationality Act come into effect than the Anglo-Chinese negotiations over Hong Kong’s future raised serious questions about the continuation of Hong Kong’s ‘Britishness’ after 1997. The Thatcher government was willing to make concessions on the nationality issue as long as they did not risk opening the floodgates to Hong Kong immigrants, who were deemed to have no close connection with the United Kingdom. A general fear of non-white immigration underpinned the 1981 British Nationality Act and Thatcher’s forging of an exclusive British identity.

The symbolism of “Britishness” held significant importance for the Unofficial Members alongside the practical benefits. They constructed a Hong Kong identity with British characteristics, being proud of British values and institutions while considering Hong Kong their home. Emigration from Hong Kong did increase, but the majority of Hong Kong Chinese stayed, valuing the “Britishness” that contributed to Hong Kong’s economic success and its status as a free and legally-based city. The Unofficial Members exerted pressure on the Thatcher government during negotiations with China to secure a detailed agreement that would preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy and way of life after 1997, reflecting their civic British identity against socialist China’s interference.

The Unofficial Members’ attachment to “Britishness” was primarily influenced by class and status rather than blood or race. Their identification with Britishness differed from the perspectives of ordinary Hong Kong residents, who seemed less interested in the legislative changes made in London. The majority of Hong Kong Chinese, unlike the highly educated elites, likely struggled to understand the complexities of terms like CUKC (Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies) and BDTC (British Dependent Territories Citizen). However, when negotiations over Hong Kong’s future began in 1982, most Hong Kong residents desired the continuation of British rule beyond 1997, even if they did not explicitly articulate a sense of “Britishness.”




‘Decolonising Britishness? The 1981 British Nationality Act and the Identity Crisis of Hong Kong Elites’