Migrants to Hongkong: of choice and neccessity

SCMP May 6


Comments by InvestHK boss Mike Rowse have stirred a debate on unkilled immigration and abode seekers. Rowse's remarks were typically crude and have rightly attracted much criticism. But at least this issue is now out in the open air. It is one of several which goes to the heart of the question of what sort of society Hongkong wants to be, or can be given its political circumstances.

Let me start addressing this issue from an oblique angle, with what seems to me to be some remarkable but little remarked statistics which appeared in this newspaper last Monday. They showed average income of the households of the freshmen at Hongkong's universities and the percentages living in public housing. Assuming the survey is roughly correct it casts one aspect of Hongkong -- and its government - in a very favourable light. The median income (taking a simple average of the four universities for which data was available) was just $17,575. That is almost exactly the current median income of all households in Hongkong -- $17,700 according to the latest Population & Household Statistics.

Taking an average of six universities, 55% of freshmen students lived in public housing. Again this is, if one includes HOS as public housing, close to the territory's average. Finally, the survey showed that on average only 11% of students had fathers who had received tertiary education.

The bottom line of this is that Hongkong has a far greater degree of education-driven social mobility than found in any advanced country. Even in very egalitarian western societies such as Sweden, tertiary level students come mostly from well above median income families and mostly have at least one parent with higher education.

I realise that numbers alone do not tell the whole Hongkong story. There is a university pecking order which reflects income levels. It is also widely believed that the most sought after courses - medicine, law etc - have higher weightings of students from prosperous families who went to the better known secondary schools. It is also the case that the richest families tend to send their offspring overseas.

Nonetheless, the numbers speak well of the efforts of the government to increase tertiary education. One can argue about the quality of some of it, criticize the salaries paid to teachers, and the cost of some of the university buildings. One can argue whether there is now too much or the wrong sort of tertiary education for the needs or absorptive capacity of the economy. But one cannot argue against its egalitarian results, which are such a contrast to so many other government policies.

There are also likely to be political consequences for what has been happening in education. There is an increasingly large tertiary educated sector with unprivileged roots and meritocratic assumptions. This is just the kind of social group which wants a say in running affairs. It may not aspire to great riches but does wants its own achievements to be acknowledged through participation in the power structure.

If Hongkong's elite bothered to look at what has happened in South Korea and Taiwan they might see a rather different future than the one apparently favoured by Mr Tung. What Hongkong has been getting is reduced non-elite participation in decision making. Instead of the elite being enlarged to accommodate social and educational change, its is contracting to an ever smaller groups of businessmen (mostly now inheritors not creators of wealth) and overpaid bureaucrats and assorted unaccountable hangers-on and place-seekers around the Chief Executive.

The new system by which ministers will be accountable to Mr Tung can only exacerbate this tendency. It will also undercut the civil service's own role in providing smart people from poor backgrounds with a way into the power structure. The tertiary education data also tells us that aspiration to achieve remains strong into the second generation of immigrants. The sons and daughters of the young migrant influx from the mainland of the 1960s and 1970 have not been content with a working class lot of unskilled work, horses and cigarettes. Ambition, as expressed through the desire for education, lives.

What is to be learned from this about policies for today? Firstly, unskilled people from the mainland want to come to Hongkong more because it is seen as a land of opportunity - not to claim welfare benefits. In every country with significant migrant intake that a higher proportion than the general population receive welfare payments. Ask Australia or Canada. But that is mostly because of transitional problems. Few remain on the welfare rolls for long.

It is also ridiculous to blame immigration for current unemployment problems. It is the case here as everywhere that migrants create demand, and have lower dependency ratios than the population at large. Even with immigration, the workforce is growing at only 1% a year. Without the newcomers it would be static, and aging even more rapidly than is currently the case. Hongkong needs immigration of at least today's level.

That said however, it is also - as I have argued in this column before - the right and duty of the government to have a policy, and to have control of implementation. Instead, we have two official responses. Firstly, the vilification of abode seekers as though they were an economic problem. In fact they are merely victims of an arrogant political and bureaucratic elite which could not bear to have its fiats disputed by the courts, and respported to the kind of scaremongering launched against immigrants by European neo-fascists.

Secondly, there is absolutely no effort to take immigration out of the hands of corrupt mainland officials and place it where it should belong - clearly enunciated public policy in Hongkong administered by Hongkong officials. Assuming Mr Tung can achieve such a great leap forward, what sort of policy should Hongkong have? Clearly, the high proportion of unskilled newcomers has depressed such wages in Hongkong, and widened income gaps.

That is certainly not entirely fair, particularly to an older generation who built Hongkong but had no opportunity for education. But they can be protected by pension, housing and health benefits biased towards the older groups. A better educated and aging Hongkong will continue to need an influx of unskilled workers. The only issue is where they come from: either one way permit holders from the mainland who would have the rights of permanent residents or from the vast pool of disposable and exploitable Filipinos, Bangladeshis etc who will work for below-market wages and make few demands on public services.

Whatever the size and source of unskilled intake, a better mix is surely needed. There is clearly a huge case to be made for bringing in skilled mainlanders both to raise local skills levels in some areas and develop better linkages with businesses and regions within China. It is a moot point whether the mainland will want to many skilled people move across the border. Arguably its skill needs are far greater. But it may see national integration advantages in changing the mix of one way permit holders.

In any event, the mainland has the right to decide who can leave just as Hongkong ought to have the right to decide who can settle permanently. The government should stop wasting time and public money on building monuments to itself - its new harbourside headquarters - and concentrate on what really matters for Hongkong's future, its people. ends

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