Stop blaming immigrants for Hong Kong's poverty problems

Stephen Vines faults officials for ceding control over immigration policy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 January, 2014, 11:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 January, 2014, 2:03am

Alarmists and self-seeking politicians are yet again having a field day stirring up fears about immigration from the mainland and adding to these fears with a sordid dose of scaremongering over new immigrants exploiting Hong Kong's welfare services. They were spurred by a recent court ruling confirming the rights of new arrivals to access social services.

There is hardly anything new about unscrupulous politicians seizing on the problems caused by immigration as a shameless way of garnering support. We see this elsewhere but, here, those who shout the loudest are also the most fervent supporters of the system that gives rise to these problems.

At its core, Hong Kong's immigration policy is defined by the one-way permit system that allows 150 people from the mainland to settle here every day. From its inception, in the colonial era, this scheme has excluded the Hong Kong government from having any say in who is allowed to migrate to Hong Kong. That power lies entirely in the hands of mainland authorities.

In theory, the permit scheme has the laudable aim of achieving family reunification, but it is administered by a bureaucracy that has its own agenda and is no stranger to corruption. Therefore, it is hard to be sure that the aim of family reunion is accomplished.

Even if it is, most people seem to assume that most of those coming over the border will axiomatically become a burden on Hong Kong's welfare services.

None of the political opportunists have even hinted that there is a problem with handing over Hong Kong's immigration controls to mainland bureaucrats because most of them are busy toadying up to Beijing.

Secondly, they do their best to create the impression that immigration from the mainland is a burden. This is not true, but even if it were, what is the moral objection to, say, a child born of a Hong Kong resident father and a mainland mother receiving social welfare?

Moreover, the new wave of anti-immigration sentiment overlooks other immigration schemes, controlled by the Hong Kong government, that bring in some of the best and brightest mainland immigrants who make valuable contributions to the local economy.

Yet it cannot be denied that the current immigration flow adds to real and pressing poverty problems in an affluent society that shamefully has an astonishing 1.3 million people living below the poverty line. Instead of addressing this fundamental failure of government policy, the opportunists seek to turn this into a contest between the established poor and the newly arrived poor. No doubt the self-righteous army of well-heeled anti-social-welfare believers is happy about this way of looking at things.

However, the real solutions lie in getting the Hong Kong government to have the guts to go to Beijing and assert its rights to control immigration. Article 62 of the Basic Law, which deals with the government's powers and functions, is supposed to provide a safeguard for autonomy in these matters, but the government increasingly ignores it.

Instead of focusing on one-off poverty alleviation policies, the Leung administration needs to demonstrate serious intent in tackling this burning issue and devise policies not just to provide a proper safety net for the most disadvantaged but also to lift citizens out of poverty in creative ways.

As matters stand, we have a government with immense fiscal reserves constantly bleating about how they are diminishing, yet it does not seem to mind spending mind-boggling sums on prestige projects. This nonsense has got to stop.

Meanwhile, the dangerous campaign of vilification aimed at the poor should be seen for what it is: a disgrace.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur