Asia’s Immigrant City: Part Two

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Part 1 Recap

Hong Kong’s great strength has been openness to the world, accepting newcomers and making them contributing Hong Kongers. That openness is under threat.  A growing sense of entitlement and fear of losing those entitlements is arising from expanding government handouts.  When the fear is directed at others, mostly mainlanders, it becomes xenophobia.  Mainlanders take the fall.  

Adjustment pains are real, but must be managed or the demographic crunch will hobble our ability to provide any government services Our leadership must drive societal change to make Hong Kong more accepting of immigration – not fight it.

Part Two:

Hong Kong’s immigration needs and challenges could be well served by bringing more international  flavour to the mix.  Harbour Times argues for immigration as recruitment, not control, and global, not just local.


Developed economies can now see a future where health care, pensions and income supplements for the elderly poor will completely consume their budgets.  Every service funded by government will suffer.  In Hong Kong, the crunch will accelerate in a few years as our workforce begins to decline. This is not the distant future.  Current legislators and civil servants are charged with squaring this circle almost immediately. We have limited options to rectify the problem.

Baby?  Maybe.

Some say we need more babies.  The suggestion we need more babies is not quite right.  What we need are more workers.

Ideally, babies will grow up and contribute.  The theoretical upside, compared to other options, is that they will be a culturally and linguistically adapted workforce with civic commitment to Hong Kong (and China, depending on who you ask).

The downside risks are manifold.  They are expensive to properly educate – and then may  leave.  It takes time bring them to the workforce.  We may guess the education wrong, leaving them dependents with no job prospects and jobs unfilled.  Some will never be productive, preferring entitlement to contribution.  There are jobs that native born and educated Hong Kongers will simply refuse to do in any great numbers.

In 2018 Hong Kong’s workforce will begin to shrink.

It is easy politics to support ‘family-friendly’ measures if current families benefit. However, the only real influencer towards higher fertility rates in wealthy economies is increased religiosity, in particular monotheism.  Unless the Hong Kong government actively pushes devout Judaism, Christianity and Islam, it is not going to make us into baby machines.

Globally, government policy promoting childbirth has not had meaningful impact in reversing aging trends.  Such policies are a sugar coating to make the real medicine go down easier.  The real medicine is immigration.

Recruit, recruit, recruit

Global fertility is falling rapidly.  Only Latin America and Africa are well above the replacement rate.  Rising wealth reduces childbearing.  Other countries face the same challenge as Hong Kong and are moving to the same solution.  If workers are the solution, we will have to compete for them.

Hong Kong still sees immigration as a function of keeping people out.  It falls squarely under Secretary for Security.  The Mission dwells heavily on exclusion.  While Hong Kong is renown for its efficient immigration bureaucracy (fulfilling its Vision of being the most efficient in the world), policy needs to change.  While the government has made efforts to bring people in at the high end of employment (Oct. 18, Quick or Silver? Aging and Economics in Asia’s Immigrant City), new policies are needed to get the big numbers we require.

Globally, government policy promoting childbirth has not had meaningful impact in reversing aging trends.

Government action isn’t enough – society must be on board.  Successful jurisdictions have engineered a change in societal thinking.  Canada and Singapore come to mind.

Canada:  The Mosaic

Canada’s open immigration made it a magnet for Hong Kongers in the 1990’s.  Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s mandate reads like a HR recruiting guide.  The government targets technology workers and entrepreneurs having problems with a prickly US immigration system.  It holds recruitment fairs in countries like The Philippines.  It grants no-condition visas to university graduates from abroad.  The country grows by about 1.5M people every 4 years (from 33.3M to 34.8M, 2008-2012).   This would be like Hong Kong growing by almost 80,000 people a year or 320,000 since 2008.  We grew by 197,000 in that time (6.958M to 7.155M).

Let there be no doubt there are concerns about newcomers and the strain on social services.  But a multi-generational leadership effort has made the country largely tolerant, even welcoming, of newcomers.  The concept of the country as a mosaic, composed of unique colourful units making a beautiful picture, was contrasted with the American melting pot where immigrants are encouraged to give up their identity for an all-American blend of culture.  An official policy of multiculturalism was co-promoted with encouraging Canadian values.  Be yourself, but also be Canadian.

Singapore:  Recruiting Big Time

Singapore splits control from decisions about who comes between two ministries.  The policy end of immigration resides in the Ministry of Manpower – again, reflecting the idea that workers, whether temporary or immigrant, are part of a workforce solution.  The Immigration Checkpoints Authority executes.  Integration has not been without issue.  Even in famously tame Singapore, there has been public discontent about the rate of immigration, resulting in pushback.  Averages of almost 60,000 new permanent residents normal in the mid-2000s has been scaled back to about 38,000 a year since 2009.  But Singapore is still recruiting workers that will stand it in good stead in the long run.  Their population of 5.4 million includes only 3.3 million citizens.  There are about half a million permanent residents and 1.5M work visa holders, international students and dependents. With a fertility rate of 1.2, it needs them.

Spread the love

Part 1 of Asia’s Immigrant City denounced rabid anti-mainland bias and encouraged our leadership to find solutions to ensure new arrivals from China become good Hong Kongers.  We should do the same with others.

As Asia’s World City, Hong Kong should be actively recruiting people from the rest of the world.  An overhaul of our immigration system to reflect a more modern approach to recruitment would be the first step.  Think InvestHK for people.   Hong Kong’s Quality Migrant Admission Scheme and new programmes to welcome entrepreneurs are small steps against the magnitude of the challenge.

Family friendly policies are a sugar coating to make the real medicine go down easier.  The real medicine is immigration.

Masses of new immigrants create resistance.  There can be an acute sense of being overwhelmed by others who could change cultural norms faster than conservative elements can accept. But when sourced from a variety of nations, ghettoisation becomes less likely.  Resistance to any one group is diffused.  Almost no one has noticed the doubling of the French population in Hong Kong outside of the expat community, hedge funds and lovers of fine dining.  A new Greek restaurant or South African community centre causes no anxiety to someone worried about egg tart shops closing to make way for a mainlander-serving Louis Vuitton outlet.

Smart deployment is  a must.  English, non-Chinese speaking construction workers may have problems fitting into traditional worksites.  A solution would be whole projects with English worksites manned by new labour and English speaking Hong Kong minorities.  Finding contractors for working in commercial and residential refits is mission impossible in Hong Kong, causing monumental delays in projects.   Polish contractors, jobless from the British economic downturn, could be recruited to fill this gap.  The Philippines has a long history of supplying English speaking workers to Hong Kong and surely more could come.  The Middle East, India and  Sub-Saharan Africa have young workers and professionals that could fill major gaps in our labour market.

Language standards, confirmed job offers and visa controls would still be in place. But we only have a few years for our leadership to plan a strategy for selling the concept of much broader immigration to a public struggling with mainland relations and new housing issues.  While not a sole solution, a more eclectic immigration sourcing scheme could be a part of  the overall solution to the demographic crunch.

Selling Strangers

Broad based immigration could  be sold on a number of platforms.

First, control.  Experimentation allows us to determine where we make the best choices in recruitment.  Success in some recruiting sources could be emphasised, others reduced. Hong Kong would control the process.

Second,  Hong Kongers are justifiably proud of their city’s international character.  Mixing up the imported worker base would play to that pride and solidify our identity as Asia’s World City.

As Asia’s World City, Hong Kong should be actively recruiting people from the rest of the world.

Third, more immigrants from abroad could,  properly managed, enhance education.  Hong Kong will need more places in private, but affordable English language schools.  The idea is not to add to Hong Kong’s social  service burden, suggesting schools would  be private. Economies of scale in English education in the mid-range of schools could cross-subsidise education for Hong Kong minorities and Hong Kong parents who value English for their children.   It would also boost our declining English standards that put us at a disadvantage to Asian competitors.

Fourth, there would be lower conversion rates into entitlement sharing permanent residents.  It is hard to see Hong Kongers worrying about masses of Nigerians, Americans or Burmese taking their spots in public housing – they simply won’t be eligible.

Fifth, they’re coming for our workers.  Factors making it easy for foreigners to come here – English capability and a modern workforce – means Hong Kong is an attractive target for recruiting countries.  University job fairs tempt our best and brightest abroad, many never to return.  If we aren’t recruiting, we are being recruited.  Recruiters aren’t coming for our retirees – they want our young workers.

Challenges manageable

We cannot be sanguine about the United Nation-ising of Hong Kong.   Employers bringing people in should be on the hook for sorting out health insurance and accommodation.  There may be a return to company owned dormitories as part of the solution – if prohibitive stamp duties don’t make that a non-starter.

Conversion into permanent residence after 7 years has served Hong Kong well and could in the future.  Those without work here will likely leave.  If Hong Kong found that, 7 years in,  people were coming out of work and into welfare, it could reverse programmes in a hurry.

Global recruiters aren’t coming for our retirees – they want our young workers.

The biggest challenges are political – selling Hong Kongers and overhauling Immigration to become recruiters, not gatekeepers.  Beijing may take issue with a couple of hundred thousand foreigners accustomed to full freedoms coming in lieu of mainlanders, but is already dealing with 7 million Hong Kongers who are extremely politically active and outspoken.  A few more Paul Zimmerman’s (now a naturalised Chinese citizen) stirring up the pot likely wouldn’t bother Beijing at all.  Mainland political activists using Hong Kong as a bully pulpit is a more likely concern to them.

Vive la différence!

As mentioned, the doubling of the French has caused little consternation in Hong Kong. The doubling of 30 other small ethnic groups in Hong Kong would probably go unnoticed and may even be welcomed.  There will  be some challenges for our  leadership to overcome.  However, if an international mix of new Hong Kongers helped us to rebalance our demographic mix, enrich our economy and cement our status as Asia’s World City, they may prove a very palatable political solution to our very real problem.