Perspectives chinoises has been officially recognized by the French Agency for the evaluation of scientific research (AERES) as an authoritative academic journal in both political sciences and sociology/demography.
20/F Wanchai Central Building
CEFC - Taipei branch
Room B111, Research Center For
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 courts decision reversed several earlier judgementsand, 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 residentsthat 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 SARs 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 SARs 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 CSDand 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 CFAs 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 Peoples 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 answerthe 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 Kongs 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 Aprils provisional estimatesestimates 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 unlikelyand one of the surveys 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 arroganceand ignoranceon Hong Kongs 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 Kongs 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 CFAs ruling) over a period of three years, without raising considerably the daily rate of admissions (which at present is set at 150 per dayand 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 governments 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 itand it must be noted that few political figures came out openly on the immigrants side. Yet, the publics fears are not entirely justified. Contrary to the general beliefbolstered as it sometimes is by official pronouncementsimmigration 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 Peoples 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 peopleand 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.
1. See Kam C. Wong, Testing the limits of One Country, Two Systems an overview of the Right of Abode case, China Perspectives n°23, May-June 1999, pp. 42-53.
2. 1996 Population By-census, Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong, Government Printer, 1996.
3. See South China Morning Post (SCMP), June 27th 1999, p.1.
4. See Wing Suens excellent article expressing her reaction to this enquiry, The Tyranny of Numbers, May 6th 1999 (an online version is available on the Citizens Party website: http://www.citizensparty. org/stats.html. It shows in particular that the the enquirys conclusions are erroneous, in that the probability of the two propositions (number of illegitimate children in China / number of taxi rides) is far from equal. Moreover, the article also offers an interesting comparison with the similar case of the emigration of Russian Jews to Israel following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
5. See SCMP, May 5th 1999, p. 1. More recently, a Hong Kong sollicitor who filed a case concerning 4,000 migrants said these statistics were grossly exaggerated as less than 2% of the migrants involved in the case were born out of wedlock. See SCMP, July 13th 1991, p. 1.
6. Hong Kong Government Statistics and Census Department, Comprehensive household survey conducted between November 1995 and January 1996.
7. SCMP, May 6th 1999, p. 1.
8. True Test of SAR Mettle, SCMP, May 7th 1999, p. 19.
9. This can take many years, because you have to be a permanent resident in order to make the claim. The averaage waiting period is also about seven years.
10. Raphaël Jacquet, New Immigrants, New Problems? China Perspectives, no. 15, January-February 1998, pp. 22-30; see also Damned Lies and Statistics, SCMP, May 5th 1999, p. 19.
11. See Xinbao (Hong Kong Economic Journal), June 3rd 1999, p. 19.
12. See on this subject the very complete article by the sociologist Siu Yat-ming, New Arrivals: A New Problem and an Old Problem, The Other Hong Kong Report 1998, Hong Kong, The Chinese University Press, 1999, pp. 201-228.