Hong Kong's population policy must keep up with today's realities

Stephen Vines says racial bias has no place in HK's population debate

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 March, 2013, 3:30am

It is difficult to have a sensible discussion about immigration policy anywhere in the world, yet recent events in Hong Kong confirm that the SAR can still punch above its weight when it comes to sheer idiocy and prejudice.

This week's Court of Final Appeal ruling denying the right of permanent abode to foreign domestic helpers confirms what amounts to official sanctioning of racial prejudice, while a recent government statement affirms a determination to allow the bulk of the SAR's immigration policy to be dictated by Beijing.

The saving grace of the top court's judgment was that it discouraged a reference to Beijing for a reinterpretation of the Basic Law, but it gave sanction to a policy that can only be described as racist.

The judges reasoned that, as foreign domestic workers came to Hong Kong with no intention of permanent settlement and under rigid rules determining their conditions of stay, they had no right to alter them.

However, these conditions can be altered by marriage. And when people who come here to work as, say, university lecturers, apply for changes in their residency status, they do not find themselves being asked why they did not originally intend to settle in Hong Kong.

Foreign domestic workers are largely defined by their gender, class and, yes, let's be blunt, their darker skins. They perform an incredibly useful service while they are here - one which, in many jurisdictions, is acknowledged by the right of permanent residence on a par with other foreigners who come for one purpose and are attracted to stay for other reasons.

Meanwhile, the bulk of immigration to Hong Kong emanates from the mainland, and the SAR government has absolutely no control over who is allowed to come. Under the one-way permit scheme (introduced in the colonial era), decisions over the right to settle are taken by the Beijing authorities without any input from the SAR.

Over 762,000 people settled in Hong Kong under this scheme between July 1997 and December last year. Almost all of them were admitted for the purpose of family reunion, but how they got these permits, in a system that is no stranger to corruption, is anyone's guess.

It is hard to argue against family reunion but it is easy to make the case for Hong Kong needing a proper immigration policy that caters for the special administrative region's skill needs and population balance in the face of an ageing society. To be fair, the government has made a half-hearted attempt to achieve this by dishing out settlement permissions to rich mainlanders and making it relatively easy for professional mainlanders to acquire permanent residence.

However, this policy is mostly racially biased - possibly a reflection of the racial policy on the mainland which allows ethnic Chinese to settle but very rarely grants nationality to people of other races.

Most successful societies recognise the immense benefits of allowing foreigners to become citizens. However, the SAR government, claiming to administer "Asia's world city", has set its face against having a proper immigration policy and recently reaffirmed that there was "no justification or need to change" the one-way permit scheme.

Hong Kong should not throw open its doors to whoever wants to come but it makes sense to have a proper and coherent immigration policy.

As ever, when this subject is under discussion, the loudest voices are heard from the bigots and the ignorant, while even members of the democratic camp, who pride themselves on advocacy of civil liberties, shy away from the debate, fearing the political dangers of engagement.

The Hong Kong of today was created by immigrants. Surely someone must notice the irony.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur