Hong Kong: 1,67 million of Potential “New Immigrants”?

On January 29th 1999, the Court
of Final Appeal (CFA) ruled on the right of abode in Hong Kong for those children
whose parents had the status of permanent residents of the Special Administrative
Region (SAR), but who themselves had been born on the mainland. The ruling had
the effect of an earthquake, both among the people of Hong Kong and within its
government. The panic that followed is, to some extent, understandable. The court’s
decision reversed several earlier judgements—and, in particular, the amendment
voted through by the Provisional Legislative Council (Legco) shortly after the
handover (1) —and thus redefined the eligibility conditions for the right
of abode in Hong Kong. Specifically, it awarded that right to illegitimate children
whose father or mother enjoyed permanent residence in Hong Kong, even in cases
where children had been born before their fathers or mothers themselves
became permanent residents: these future immigrants were also exempted from having
to acquire “one-way permits” from the Chinese authorities before they
could settle in Hong Kong.

The main reason for the panic effect was that the government
had not been expecting this verdict, and was caught unawares by the turn-around.
For weeks on end, the SAR authorities were unable to offer any estimate of the
numbers of potential immigrants whom this decision would affect. An enquiry was
promptly demanded from the Census and Statistics Department (CSD), which promised
a provisional estimate by May 1999.

The nightmare scenario

On April 28th, the Secretary for Security, Regina Ip, unveiled
in Legco the first results of the enquiry. The total number of mainland children
with the right to move to Hong Kong was put at 1,675,000. 692,000 of them, the
offspring of first generation residents, could come at once, spread out over a
period of about three years. 983,000 second generation children could enter Hong
Kong once their parents had themselves become permanent residents—that is
to say, after seven years’ uninterrupted residence (see
figure 1
). This influx, even spread out over ten years, amounts by itself
to no less than 25% of the SAR’s present population of 6.7 million; and it
reduces to tatters the published forecasts of the CSD at the time of the by-census
of 1996, which predicted a rise in the population to 8.1 million by 2011 (2).
If one takes account of demographic growth over recent years (about 3% annually),
the SAR’s population could well exceed ten million by the start of the second
decade of the 21st century! Such a scenario might well shake any city in the world.
For Hong Kong, which is already close to saturation point in several respects,
the pressure would be unsustainable.

That, at least, is the message that the SAR government
has tried to convey to the general public, and not without some success. It wasted
no time in publicising the economic cost of such an influx (HK$710 billion)—no
less alarmist an estimate than that published by the CSD—and in detailing
the catastrophic consequences for Hong Kong society and for the economy. Despite
intensive questioning as to the methods and the precise findings of the enquiry
itself (including by CSD officials), the government refused to await the results
of a more detailed enquiry; it hastily took the necessary steps to ensure that
the CFA’s decision should be overturned, by one means or another. Clearly,
the aim now was not to quantify this influx, or even to manage it as best it could,
but rather to prevent it or, at the very least, to reduce it by as much as possible.
Eventually, at the request of the SAR government, the Standing Committee of the
National People’s Congress overturned the CFA ruling by providing a reinterpretation
of Articles 22 and 24 of the Basic Law on June 26th 1999 (3).

Problems of methodology

The fact is that, in the eyes of many observers and specialists,
the enquiry that led to this decision leaves a lot to be desired, from the point
of view of both its methodology and the interpretation of its results. There is
no intention here to cast doubt on the methods or the competence of the CSD. We
should bear in mind that its enquiry was not completed, and that this was only
a provisional estimate. One may wonder, however, whether it was reasonable for
preliminary results to be used as the basis for analysis by the government and
the administration, on a question that was, after all, extremely important in
both its social and moral dimensions.

Beginning in January 1999, the survey was based upon a
sample of 10,000 households, with the principle objective of estimating the numbers
of children born on the mainland, legitimate and illegitimate, with at least one
Hong Kong parent. For obvious reasons, by far the most delicate calculation was
the estimate of the number of illegitimate children. This is also the most controversial
aspect of the survey. The pollsters decided firstly to divide the sample into
two, one half replying directly to the questions, and the other replying in a
roundabout way, according to a method known as “randomised response”.
To the question, “How many illegitimate children do you have living on the
mainland?”, the respondent thrusts his or her hand into a black bag filled
with empty film boxes, half with lids and half without, and takes hold of one
without seeing or showing it. If the box is one with a lid, the person is supposed
to give an exact answer—the number of children. If the box has no lid, the
person is supposed to give the number of taxi rides he or she took during the
week before the interview. While this method does enable the pollsters to guarantee
confidentiality, it is most often subject to a significant margin of error and,
according to some specialists, does not necessarily give very different results
from direct questioning (4).

Moreover, the results achieved by the use of this method
have not been compared with the results produced by asking direct questions, inasmuch
as the latter were judged unsatisfactory, and were disregarded from the start.
Considering, then, that half the people in the sample had their replies discounted,
and that 50% of the other half were replying to another question, one is bound
to be highly sceptical about how representative such a poll could be. The figures
for illegitimate children of second generation residents seem even more dubious
and, even in the opinion of a senior figure in the CSD, “could be 50% wrong”,
either way (5).

We are not concerned here merely with details: unreliable
estimates of this kind are all the more serious in that illegitimate children
as a whole account for about 70%, on average, of the presumed influx (1.16 million
out of 1.67 million) and three times the number of the legitimate children of
first generation residents (see figure 1). We should note that the figure of 520,000
illegitimate children seems abnormally high in proportion to Hong Kong’s
adult male population (about two million). By way of comparison, another survey,
dating from 1996, put at 326,100 the total number of children born of a Hong Kong
parent and living in China, the question of legitimacy not having been raised
(6).

Some questions still to be answered

There are several aspects of last April’s provisional
estimates—estimates taken at face value by the government that could hardly
fail to arouse some scepticism. We shall single out the two main ones.

1. It is assumed that all those people with the right to
come and settle in Hong Kong will do so. That is unlikely—and one of the
survey’s conclusions, much less publicised, indicates that only 70% of those
concerned would cross the frontier permanently (7). For Legco member Margaret
Ng, the attitude of Hong Kong people in preferring still to believe that all
mainland Chinese people ask nothing better than to settle in Hong Kong suggests
“a great arrogance—and ignorance—on Hong Kong’s part”
(8). If the provisional results of the enquiry are to be believed, 70% of the
“children of first generation residents” are aged 20 or over, and only
10% have any technical or professional qualifications. It is not certain, therefore,
bearing in mind the nature of Hong Kong’s economy and its present state,
that most of such “potential immigrants” have much to gain by uprooting
themselves. Moreover, while young children (legitimate ones!) can live with their
parents, that is not necessarily so for adults, many of whom will start off having
to pay their own rent, while awaiting the chance of subsidised housing (9). One
can also assume that any significant problems encountered by the first wave of
immigrants would have a deterrent effect upon those planning to follow. Indeed,
it is up to the Hong Kong government and to the Chinese authorities to wage a
real information campaign among those people concerned, to explain to them what
conditions they can expect, while stressing that going to settle in Hong Kong
is a permanent right, and one available to them at any time.

2. The government lays stress on the fact that it is almost
impossible to bring in some 800,000 people (first generation plus those who were
already on the waiting list before the CFA’s ruling) over a period of three
years, without raising considerably the daily rate of admissions (which at present
is set at 150 per day—and judged already to be too high). This reasoning
seems to leave out at least two significant elements. Firstly, it assumes that
the Chinese government will allow Hong Kong to persuade it to increase the number
of people it permits to “emigrate” to the SAR. This is unlikely given
that, throughout the period of British rule, the Hong Kong authorities never had
any say in the matter, neither over the number of immigrants coming in from China
nor over their qualifications (10). Secondly, the reasoning makes no allowance
for the time consumed in formalities which, particularly in the case of the illegitimate
children, might well be lengthy. What status do such illegitimate children have
at present in China? How would a Hong Kong resident be able to prove parenthood
in the case of an illegitimate child living on the mainland? How much time will
all this take (11)? The government has never given clear answers to these questions.

Immigrants— burdens, or assets?

How the government’s actions will affect the rule
of law in Hong Kong has yet to be measured. Accordingly, it is regrettable that
government officials, intent upon heading off trouble, should have taken such
an important decision on the basis of a preliminary enquiry that, however accurate
its results may or may not be, is full of gaps and inconsistencies. It must be
said that the government was holding a strong hand: for one thing, no one was
in any position to offer a detailed challenge to the CSD estimates; for another,
it was well aware that it had public opinion behind it—and it must be noted
that few political figures came out openly on the immigrants’ side. Yet,
the public’s fears are not entirely justified. Contrary to the general belief—bolstered
as it sometimes is by official pronouncements—immigration from the mainland
has not been the main factor of population growth over the past ten years, despite
the increase in quotas (12). It seems, in fact, that Hong Kong might have everything
to gain from an influx of young people. The territory has a birth rate that is
among the lowest in the world (9.1 per thousand in 1998) and needs young people
so as to halt the ageing of its population.

Since the National People’s Congress reinterpreted
the Basic Law, the number of potential immigrants has been reduced to a few hundred
thousand. Nevertheless, it is hard to understand how the government can, with
a wave of its magic wand, shrug off its moral responsibilities towards several
tens of thousands of people—and get away with it. The claim by immigrants
to bring their families with them is a problem that has bedevilled Hong Kong governments
over several decades. The statistics recently published by the present one will
not help to resolve it.

Back to top