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AUGUST 14, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 6

The Fuse That Finally Ran Out
A fiery protest at Hong Kong's immigration office highlights the plight of mainlanders

No one enjoys going to Immigration Tower, where the forms are long and the queues longer. But if you're a foreigner and want to live in Hong Kong, you must spend time in the anonymous skyscraper to secure a visa and an all-important identity card. That was the intention of 23 people who entered the glass-clad building in Hong Kong's Wanchai district last week and made their way to the 13th floor. After a four hour-wait, the group's impatience turned to disaster—whether it was because of anger or despair is not yet known. Using highly flammable paint thinner, they set off a fireball that injured 44 people, seven of them critically.

That type of violent protest is rare in Hong Kong, where political activism is frowned upon by the Beijing-installed government. The territory's Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, told victims' families at the hospital: "We are all very angered by what has happened. This sort of irrational behavior is totally unacceptable." The public was stunned. "When I found out it was an explosion set off by a group of people, I was angry because no one does that kind of thing," says Chan Wai-yan, one of the first television cameramen on the scene. "I've never seen so many injured before, so many burned." The South China Morning Post denounced "fiery attacks on innocent clerks."

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It was far more than that. The fire in Immigration Tower marked the explosion of an issue that has long divided Hong Kong society. The 23 disgruntled people were would-be migrants from the Chinese mainland. They entered Hong Kong in the belief that they would be allowed to stay because each has at least one parent who is a Hong Kong resident. The Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, says they can, and that right has been upheld by the local judiciary. But the Tung government, worried that thousands of mainlanders would take advantage of the law, asked Beijing's National People's Congress to intervene. Obligingly, the npc last year reversed a Hong Kong court ruling favorable to the migrants, ending any illusions about the local judiciary's autonomy. Hong Kong's courts are now dealing with petitions from thousands of potential residents looking for a loophole.

Though many people in Hong Kong are concerned that Beijing can now interpret the Basic Law any way it pleases, some are willing to see a little compromise on this particular issue. They too fear the effects on jobs and housing if Hong Kong (pop. 6.5 million) sees a new wave of immigrants. Already, mainlanders are treated with antipathy by locals who consider them uncouth, crime-prone and lazy. The attack in Wanchai may well harden such views.

What precisely happened in Immigration Tower is still a mystery. The 23 would-be migrants entered the building at 2 p.m. and headed for room 1301, a public area for people having trouble with their immigration applications. According to immigration director Ambrose Lee, the same group had staged 17 protests outside his office in the past three months. The group demanded identity cards, and staff members told them to put their requests in writing. They were asked to leave the room but were allowed to stay in the elevator lobby.

According to sources who have spoken to members of the group, the protesters then made phone calls from the lobby to police and a local newspaper announcing that a suicide would take place. Apparently two policemen arrived to investigate but later left. Shortly before 6 p.m., the mainlanders were informed that the office was closing. Somebody in the group shouted a suicide threat. Then, one member took out a bottle filled with flammable liquid and doused himself. A second person produced a cigarette lighter.

Hong Kong authorities have a slightly different version. They say the group produced several bottles of liquid and sprinkled it around the room and on immigration officers. At that point, the two accounts converge. Room 1301, occupied at that moment by the 23 protesters and more than 20 officials, exploded in flames. The building's alarms and sprinklers went off. By the time eight fire engines and 22 ambulances arrived in Wanchai, the fire was out and the injured were writhing on the floor. The following day, Tung's government announced a crackdown on illegal migrants from China, though it excepted those who were petitioning the courts to remain. "Prejudice against mainlanders will only be strengthened after this incident," says Law Yuk-kai, director of Hong Kong's Human Rights Monitor. "But it should also highlight the causes of it." That's a lot to expect of a populace who, even before last week's conflagration, didn't much like mainlanders.

—Reported by Wendy Kan/Hong Kong

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