A government plan to open the door for mainland professionals to work in the SAR has provoked debate, with unemployment having reached the unprecedented level of 5.8 per cent. Under the proposed scheme, professionals from the mainland would be allowed to work in Hong Kong and become permanent residents after seven years. No quota will be set as the number of professionals involved is expected to be small. Advocates of the new scheme argue that importing mainland professionals would benefit Hong Kong in the long run. Chinese medicine practitioners have supported the proposed move. The One Country Two Systems Research Institute says there is a need to import outstanding mainland professionals in the field of traditional Chinese medicine. 'Hong Kong has the potential to become an international centre of traditional Chinese medicine if we have sufficient practitioners who are knowledgeable in traditional Chinese medicine,' said institute director Shiu Sin-por. Priscilla Choi Ming-chu, manager of recruitment agency, Pansona Consultants, said companies keen to develop their business in China would be interested in hiring mainland professionals. 'Now, the demand for engineering professionals is great. The import of information technology engineers from the mainland won't pose a great problem for local professionals in this field,' she said. Many employers have welcomed the proposed scheme, noting that since Hong Kong has returned to China, well-trained and skilled workers from the mainland should be allowed to work here. Labour unions, however, oppose the scheme. They argue that importing mainland or foreign labour would make the unemployment problem worse. Federation of Civil Service Unions chairman Leung Chau- ting urged the Government not to open the door to mainland professionals because it could lead to a reduction in wages and put pressure on the employment market. Engineers have also opposed the scheme. Legislator Raymond Ho Chung-tai, who represents the engineering constituency, said: 'In the long term, this scheme may put pressure on population growth and erode our quality of life.' Dr Ho cited a similar scheme - the pilot scheme for mainland professionals - which targeted graduates of 36 elite mainland institutions. It began in March 1994 and finished at the end of 1997 following a lukewarm response. The scheme had set a quota of 1,000 graduates but only 602 came. The majority were engineers, administrators and marketing executives employed in trading, construction, finance and electronics. Companies taking part said they had problems finding suitable mainland professionals, while applicants said they were frustrated by the tedious procedures to get permission. Others have suggested that a quota be set on the number allowed into Hong Kong until the economy improves. Esther Chan Wai-sze, 23, a third-year journalism and communication student at Hong Kong Shue Yan College, believes now is not a good time to allow mainland professionals into the SAR. 'As it is, university graduates may have great difficulties finding jobs and this plan could seriously hurt them,' she said. Ms Chan said the Government should set a quota; otherwise it could lead to an influx of mainland migrants. Housewife Judy Yip Wai-man was worried the pilot scheme would become a giant 'immigration scheme' in disguise as arrivals would acquire the right of abode.