Immigration Will Determine Hong Kong's Identity
21 March 2012
The Hong Kong chief executive race is being driven by fears about the city's identity. Henry Tang is mistrusted because as the favorite of the tycoons he may lead the city down the road of crony capitalism. C.Y. Leung is mistrusted because he is a Communist Party man who may compromise the city's autonomy.
But the biggest threat to Hong Kong's identity is more prosaic. Whoever becomes chief executive after Sunday will have major decisions to make on immigration to address a demographic crisis on the horizon.
Without immigration, in a few decades Hong Kong will become, after Japan, Italy and Germany, the world's fourth-oldest community. The median age, already 41.8, is forecast to reach 50 in 20 years. For a society synonymous with enterprise and innovation, this prospect is unsettling.
The very low fertility rate of women born locally, about half the replacement level, undermines Hong Kong's continuity as a community with common values acquired through education and experience. Those who grow up here have inbuilt expectations for political freedoms, fair courts and uncorrupt officials which mainlanders do not.
The low birth rate is a direct threat to these shared values. Hong Kong has never taken steps to rectify the problems behind the birth rate, which include prohibitive housing costs and the lack of job protection for nursing women.
The demographic crisis is intertwined with Hong Kong's fragile identity because of the city's special history, which is driven by a relationship with the world in general and Asia and overseas Chinese communities in particular. It is up to the people of Hong Kong to decide whether they carry on the best of this legacy or are content to be gradually absorbed into the mainland Chinese system.
Perhaps by 2047, the date of supposed true reintegration with the mainland, Hong Kong will have merged with Shenzhen, a port city playing the role that Santos does to Sao Paulo or Tianjin to Beijing.
This prospect, even if there is a sudden revival in fertility, means Hong Kong's immigration policies will be of paramount importance to its cultural and political future.
At present the city has three sources of permanent and one of temporary migrants. In different ways, all are highly unsatisfactory.
The biggest immigration flow today is from the daily quota of about 150 mainlanders or 55,000 a year. These are determined by mainland authorities in an opaque system which takes no account of Hong Kong's economic and social needs. A high proportion is made up of unskilled laborers, who are prone to unemployment and causing social problems.
Hong Kong badly needs to get control of this system and only import the mainlanders it wants, such as trained nurses, and perhaps with a bias toward Cantonese speakers.
The second source of migrants is both controversial and uncertain -- the 40,000 or so a year births to mainland mothers who thereby acquire right of residence for their children but not themselves. There have been calls to end this right because mainlanders have been overcrowding local maternity wards but it be would dangerous to undermine Hong Kong's Basic Law by doing so.
As no one knows how many of these children will in future want to live in the city, they are only a theoretical solution to the local birth drought. If they are eventually to live here, it would be desirable to ensure they are educated here. So the government needs a policy preventing large numbers of pregnant women coming to Hong Kong just to give birth while admitting young, skilled mainland families who want their children educated locally.
The third immigrant population is made up of temporary domestic helpers paid a fraction of the median wage. While Hong Kong treats its foreign helpers much better than Singapore and Malaysia, let alone Gulf countries, it must be questioned whether it is socially desirable to increasing rely on this underclass.
They are restricted to servant work even if they possess the qualifications and language skills to be nurses paid regular salaries in short-staffed government hospitals.
Indirectly, this mass of hard-working, rights-less foreigners contributes to the widening local income gaps and unemployment among unskilled workers.
Finally, there is an ad hoc flow of immigrants who come to Hong Kong as professionals and businessmen and then settle down. They are not a large percentage of total immigrants, but are crucial in sustaining Hong Kong's global connections and high level of expertise.
Hong Kong's claim to be "Asia's World City" is contradicted by its reluctance to offer existing minorities the status they merit and its failure to encourage entry of others to sustain its global links and special identity.
Apart from one scheme to attract investment by offering residence, there is scant government effort to attract a diverse group of mainlanders, Taiwanese, Southeast and South Asians, Koreans, Westerners and overseas Chinese who appreciate its mix of freedom, dynamism and good government. Singapore, by contrast, has made a very good job of capitalizing on diversity, welcoming Indians and Westerners as well as Chinese.
With China generally, and cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou in particular, gaining new foreign links and international communities, Hong Kong must work harder to stay unique. After years of incoherent muddling along, the city has a huge opportunity in the incoming chief executive to change course and secure its identity with clear immigration and family policies.