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
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
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