Hong Kong has nothing resembling a coherent immigration or population policy, yet the government is helping to generate an unpleasant and possibly dangerous degree of anti-immigrant sentiment.
Recent figures confirm that, as ever, the bulk of immigration to Hong Kong comes from the mainland under the one-way permit scheme, which last year brought in 42,300 immigrants, slightly down from the 47,000 who arrived in 2017 and well down on the surge of 57,400 arrivals in 2016.
This scheme, inaugurated by the colonial authorities almost four decades ago, is supposedly designed to facilitate family reunions, but the Hong Kong government has no say in determining who qualifies and simply receives a list from mainland authorities telling them who will be coming without any kind of consultation.
On the mainland itself, however, provincial authorities have the right to determine migration flows between provinces but the spineless officials who inhabit Tamar will not even contemplate an attempt to wrest some control over this process.
As a result, it is almost impossible to know whether the people coming into Hong Kong under the one-way permit scheme are genuinely reuniting with their families. What is known is that they are overwhelmingly low-skilled and of modest means.
Contrary to myth, however, the overwhelming majority are of working age and thus do not, as alleged, simply arrive here and rely on the state to look after them.
Nevertheless, there is considerable resentment shown towards new migrants from the mainland as they take up something like 19 percent of new public housing units and are said to be adding to the overcrowding of public hospitals.
That resentment often turns ugly as the working-class immigrants face confrontation with local working-class people. Instead of turning their ire onto a government that fails to invest adequately in the provision of social services, Hongkongers direct their anger towards new immigrants who, in reality, are guilty of nothing more than trying to get by as well as they can.
This anti-immigrant sentiment is hardly unique to Hong Kong and is often consciously used by governments to cover up their failure to provide for less well-off citizens. However, it is somewhat bizarre in Hong Kong where almost everyone is either an immigrant themselves or, if not, they are the offspring of immigrants be they parents or grandparents.
In theory, therefore, tolerance of immigration should be high but in practice the way government handles things adds to the suspicion that immigration is yet another arm of the plan to diminish Hong Kong’s autonomy and thrust it ever closer to the mainland.
This suspicion is reinforced when it can be seen that the only semblance of an SAR immigration policy is one that addresses itself to mainland integration issues. Thus, there are special schemes for bringing in mainland students and professionals, special residency rights for rich mainlanders, and this new Greater Bay Area proposal seems to add to the flow of people across the border but not in a way that is advantageous to Hong Kong.
Added to this is the constant pressure to diminish and disparage local culture by, for example, dismissing Cantonese as a mere dialect that needs to give way to Mandarin, a more recent Chinese language. The new national anthem law is designed to make Hongkongers behave more like mainlanders in honoring national institutions and there is a fetishistic concern over ensuring that the HKSAR flag is never raised above the five-star flag of the PRC. All this contributes to a feeling that Hong Kong’s distinctiveness is considered to be a negative.
The migration policy, however, is the one which most directly affects Hong Kong’s working class and because the government refuses to take measures that will firmly alleviate poverty or indeed significantly improve social conditions, hapless mainland immigrants are likely to bear the brunt of local anger.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong faces the complex problems of an aging population, and labor and skill shortages that are beginning to become acute. Instead of addressing these issues with a coherent population strategy, the government busies itself with ad hoc schemes and seems to be waiting for big brother in Beijing to sort everything out.
The problem is that this is precisely what is likely to happen.
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