If you really need welfare support but can't get it as a new migrant because of the seven-year residency rule, you may end up living on the streets. That was the fate that befell Kong Yunming, who arrived in Hong Kong on December 21, 2005, to live with her 76-year-old husband. Unfortunately, he died the next day after a prolonged illness and she was kicked out of his flat on a public housing estate.
There was something fundamentally inhumane about denying Kong, now 64, any benefits from Comprehensive Social Security Assistance. The Court of Final Appeal yesterday ruled the seven-year qualification for welfare unconstitutional. That is a wise and humane judgment. The court does not specify how many years, if any, a residency rule should be. Most likely, officials will go back to the one-year residency rule in place before 2004, which seems reasonable. Some groups, like the Liberal Party, have warned against opening the floodgates to new- migrant applicants for CSSA. Such fears were what prompted the seven-year requirement, which was imposed in 2004 in a moment of panic following an erroneous projection that 1.67 million mainland migrants would flood into Hong Kong.
Letting people into the city on a one-way permit and then offering no help to those in need is simply self-defeating. It creates desperate people on the fringes of society. In any case, it's not the highest court that has created the problem. According to the department's own numbers, it granted 14,000 exemptions out of 36,000 cases since 2004 to allow applicants with less than seven years of residency to go on CSSA.
The Social Welfare Department should have shown more compassion and common sense in Kong's case; the Housing Authority granted her a public rental flat on a discretionary basis three years ago. She would not then have had to fight the department in court, with the help of Society for Community Organisation. And the government's cherished seven-year rule would have continued unchallenged.
It would be politically unacceptable now to seek an interpretation from the standing committee of the National People's Congress to overturn the judgment. The government should admit defeat and accept it.