The recent breakdown of Hong Kong’s public healthcare system as a result of patient overcrowding has once again reignited the debate over one-way permits (OWPs) for mainland residents.
Unfortunately, calls for the reduction of the current 150 daily quotas under the OWP scheme have been branded as “discriminatory” and even “hostile to human rights”.
No less than Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor declared that any suggestion of taking back the authority to approve OWPs from the mainland is “stepping on the red line”.
But by categorizing a livelihood issue as a matter of sovereignty, our government is basically skirting the urgent need to review the extent of our city’s ability to sustain population growth.
In my opinion, trimming the daily quotas of OWPs and allowing Hong Kong to participate in the process of approving OWP applicants will not undermine Beijing’s sovereignty over our city at all.
In fact, such moves would make Hong Kong citizens feel that both central and Hong Kong authorities are eager to address their pressing concerns.
Article 22 of the Basic Law provides: “For entry into the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, people from other parts of China must apply for approval. Among them, the number of persons who enter the Region for the purpose of settlement shall be determined by the competent authorities of the Central People’s Government after consulting the government of the Region.”
As we can see, the Basic Law has never denied Hong Kong the right to draw up its own conditions to vet and approve OWP applications.
It is, in fact, the HKSAR government that has failed to seriously study the implications of the OWP scheme for our society and, over the years, has refused to fulfill its role under the Basic Law to play a key part in the scheme.
Major mainland cities such as Guangzhou and Nanjing, which aren’t even special administrative regions like us, are authorized by Beijing to manage their own citizenship registration systems and control their migrant populations.
What I am suggesting here is that Hong Kong should be allowed to exercise the right to approve the applications of immigrants from the mainland and, if necessary, to reduce their quotas. As such, there is no question here of Hong Kong “challenging the authority of the central government”.
Back in 1999, 22 Hong Kong deputies to the National People’s Congress (NPC), including the late DAB chairman Ma Lik and former home affairs secretary Tsang Tak-sing, jointly wrote to the central authorities, urging them to discuss with the SAR government and then formulate a new set of policies for mainland immigrants under which new measures such as, among others, a points-based system should be introduced.
If we take a closer look at our citizens’ demands today, we can find that they are virtually the same as the proposals laid out in that petition 20 years ago.
More importantly, reducing the current daily quotas of 150 OWPs for mainland immigrants would definitely help improve the quality of governance of both the mainland and SAR administrations.
The social volatility we see in Hong Kong today has its roots in the excessive daily OWP quotas, and the resulting influx of mainland immigrants has already far exceeded our city’s capacity to provide healthcare, housing, welfare and other services.
Consequently, Hong Kong is now caught in a weird and vicious circle.
The quality of life of our local citizens is being undermined, and this fuels public resentment at the OWP scheme, and such mounting resentment has made it increasingly difficult for mainland immigrants to integrate into the community, thereby exacerbating polarization and divisions in society, which, in turn, are further dragging down our quality of life.
Just as what the 22 NPC delegates proposed two decades ago, by sharing the power to vet and approve OWP applications with the SAR government and reducing the daily quotas based on the actual situation in Hong Kong, Beijing would be able to substantially ease the social and political unrest in our city. Such a move would highlight its overall jurisdiction over the HKSAR and demonstrate its respect for the “high degree of autonomy” of Hong Kong.
There is probably never such thing as a “red line” as far as the OWP scheme is concerned.
The main reason why Beijing and Hong Kong have been unable to engage in constructive dialogue over the OWP scheme according to the Basic Law is that our government simply doesn’t have the guts to communicate to Beijing the legitimate grievances of our citizens regarding the scheme.
As we all know, the real “red line” in Hong Kong today lies not in the question of which side has the authority to approve OWPs, but rather, in the mounting public grievances in our city that are about to boil over.
Having said that, I urge our decision-makers to stop using “family reunions” as an excuse to dodge the pressing necessity of reviewing the OWP scheme and reducing the number of OWPs.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 14
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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