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Chinese Court Rules on Hong Kong Immigrants

A court has ruled that a few hundred mainland immigrants can stay in Hong Kong, but nearly 5,000 others face being sent back to China. The verdict raises concerns beyond the issue of immigration.

A crowd of mainland immigrants and activists shout as word of the verdict spreads outside the Court of Final Appeal. For most of the immigrants, the ruling ends all hope that they can stay in Hong Kong, where many have lived for years.

Rob Brook, a lawyer representing about 5,000 claimants in the suit, says he is disappointed. "A fairly comprehensive victory for the government," he said.

He says fewer than 500 people will be able to stay under the ruling. They meet several strict conditions, such as having arrived in Hong Kong before 1997, when the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule. The others will have to go back to China and wait there for mainland permission to return, which could take years.

The mainlanders are the children of legal Hong Kong residents. They sued the government, arguing they can stay under Hong Kong's Basic Law, its mini-constitution. The Basic Law states that children of legal residents have the right to live in the territory.

Local court rulings in 1999 agreed with the immigrants. The Hong Kong government, worried that those rulings would unleash a flood of migrants, asked China's National People's Congress to re-interpret the Basic Law. Chinese lawmakers backed the Hong Kong government.

Many legal scholars and Hong Kong residents argued that move eroded the judicial independence and administrative autonomy Hong Kong was guaranteed under Chinese rule.

Mr. Brook and other attorneys say the ruling is most troubling because it confirms that the government can easily seek help from Beijing to override the courts. "These people were here asserting their constitution rights," he said. "Rights which our highest court found in early 1999 they had and which should be recognized, but which the government then took deliberate steps to foil."

Tung Chee-hwa, the head of the Hong Kong government, said later Thursday the mainlanders will be allowed to stay until mid-February. For lawyers and non-governmental organizations helping in the case, a key concern is keeping the immigrants' frustration from boiling. In the past, some plaintiffs have committed suicide in despair over the case, others have taken part in protests or committed violent acts. "There have been a lot of NGOs which have been organizing to speak to and give support to claimants," he said. "I suspect that we will see some sort of protest action. We are hoping and aiming for that protest action to remain peaceful."

The government plans a meeting Friday with the lawyers and other representatives of the claimants. The case has been one of the most emotionally and politically charged issues the local government has handled since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule.