Europe's migrant crisis a reminder of what's important
Mike Rowse says some perspective is needed on HK's reform plight
I think it is well past time for some perspective to kick in. The really big news of last week was the report that up to a million people were thought to be waiting in North Africa for the chance to migrate to Europe.
If anything approaching that number do set off, the consequences for that continent - indeed, conceivably, for the whole world - will be earth-shaking.
Here in Hong Kong, we have experience of large-scale refugee flows. After the second world war and again periodically thereafter under the influence of events on the mainland, Chinese from all corners of our country flooded in. They were mostly allowed to stay and immigration control did not begin in a serious way until the 1970s.
Next came ethnic Chinese fleeing Vietnam following the communist victory in that country's war with America. Most Hong Kong people were sympathetic, as they could understand the motivation.
A later wave from the same source, but this time comprising predominantly ethnic Vietnamese people, did not evoke the same response here. After all, many of those arriving had fought for the communists - they were the original "men in black pyjamas" - and paradoxically they now wanted to go to the US to enjoy the good life.
America wouldn't take them as it saw correctly that they were essentially economic migrants (and were from the enemy at that) but at the same time, strongly opposed the idea of Hong Kong sending them back. Since our foreign policy at that time was decided by the British, who took their lead from Washington, our citizens were essentially forced to grin and bear it.
Now carry this mishmash of conflicting emotions over to the Africa/Europe situation and it doesn't take a genius to see the emerging crisis.
On the one hand, nobody likes to see people, especially children, drowning as flimsy vessels sink at sea. From Libya, and other countries to the south and in an arc round to Syria and further afield, they are fleeing from failed states, societies that have basically ceased to function. So there is a surge of humanitarianism.
On the other hand, most of those concerned are poor and of a totally different culture, a heavy burden on the communities they aim to be a part of.
There is a religious element too: there are even reports that the conflicts from their homelands have carried over into the boats carrying them to Europe, with murders en route. Why should such people deserve succour? In countries already suffering from high unemployment and austerity, which governments are going to be brave enough to offer to house the new arrivals? There are already political parties in all the major democracies reflecting citizens' concern in this area. Some members are, of course, overtly racist and even neo-Nazi, but many supporters are just ordinary people concerned for their own families' welfare and safety.
Let's face it, when large numbers of people - some of them armed - arrive somewhere uninvited, that's an invasion.
A soft policy - aside from being political suicide - invites even larger numbers to come, and also brings in human trafficking with all the attendant abuses.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has opted to get tough - indeed he even won the last election partly on a platform of promising to turn back the boats. Instead of automatic entry to his country, new arrivals are sent off to camps elsewhere while their case for political asylum is assessed. As a consequence, the numbers arriving have dropped sharply, and the human traffickers are basically out of business: who, after all, is going to mortgage his soul to sweat for years in a rather rudimentary camp in Papua New Guinea?
There are no easy answers here and I certainly have no magic wand to wave to generate one. Both soft and hard policy options have their critics and have pluses and minuses.
But one thing is certain. Compared to the human tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean, the damp squib of Hong Kong's political reform proposals unveiled last week is pretty small beer.
Mike Rowse is managing director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. [email protected]