Hong Kong may have always been an immigrant society, but our government has repeatedly said it's a difficult task to keep track of the flows of people in and out of the city. It is perhaps time officials tried to do a better job of estimating the composition of our population, particularly our expatriate community.
The need to overhaul the tabulation methods was highlighted by the reaction to a South China Morning Post report on Wednesday ('Alarm raised as expats opt to shun HK'). The report cited Immigration Department figures that appeared to show the number of Americans, Britons, Canadians and Australians coming to Hong Kong has fallen in recent years.
The figures were compiled by tracking the arrivals and departures of foreign-passport holders, and have been used for many years as an indication of the size of the expat community. Several commentators expressed concern about the falling number of newly arrived expats, and said something should be done to maintain our attraction to foreign talent.
However, Jim Thompson, a former president of the American Chamber of Commerce who is in the relocation business, wrote in to challenge the validity of the analysis. He said his figures showed that there had been a steady increase in the number of moves to Hong Kong. Rising prices for luxury flats and falling vacancies at international schools were also signs that the number of expats had not fallen, he said.
Another reader, Jyoti Singh Visvanath, was appalled by the report's reflection of a 'hangover colonial mentality that panders to western expats'. 'It seems that we, from the brown world of Asia, do not qualify as true expats,' he wrote.
I believe both readers have a point. Anecdotal evidence suggests that while the number of newly arrived white expats might have declined, non-white arrivals have increased. After completing seven years of residency, the majority apply to become permanent residents. As the successful applicants are then issued permanent identity cards that they can use to pass through immigration, they no longer show up in statistics as expats.
While the Immigration Department keeps figures on the total number of approved applications for permanent residency every year, it claims that it does not have breakdowns on the applicants' ethnicity or nationality.
The traditional definition of an expat is a white professional who comes here to take up a management position and is compensated with a fabulous package. In fact, over the past two decades, there has been a steady rise in the number of expats doing a broad range of non-managerial jobs.
Many are not white, and come from Southeast Asia and South Asia. But as their absolute numbers from any one country remain small, they are lumped together under the 'other' category in all kinds of statistics. If we just looked at nationality figures, professionals from the Philippines, Thailand and Sri Lanka may be wrongly counted as foreign domestic helpers.
Many so-called expats have made Hong Kong home for years: should we still stick this label on them? I know of many who resent it.
An important point that we should not overlook is that expats are here because of Hong Kong's colonial legacy, its status as a base for multinational corporations and our serious skills shortage. Rising costs may have prompted more multinationals to use local managers, and the rising educational attainment of the local population may have reduced dependency on foreign professionals.
Your guess is as good as mine as to the actual numbers. Before jumping to any conclusions or making any rash moves, our government may want to find out what is actually happening first.
C. K. Lau is the Post's executive editor, policy