Shenzhen’s 4.1 million non-permanent residents – migrant workers, in other words – will be able to visit Hong Kong with Shenzhen-issued multiple-entry permits starting Saturday. Previously, they had to return to their hometowns to get the paperwork. While Commerce and Economic Development Secretary Greg So blathers away about how this will be a boost to the Big Lychee’s retail and catering industries, everyone else (even China Daily quotes anti-tourism activists) is asking pointed questions.
Where the hell will all these people actually be wedged in, on our sidewalks, in our trains and in our shops? Please show us the empty space they will physically occupy. And what have we done to deserve this? Why does Shenzhen hate us so much that it would commit such an act of plain malice?
The Hong Kong government, which clearly was not consulted about this, is scrambling to assure the 99% of us who do not own Greg So’s beloved retail outlets that it will somehow manage the expected new influx. No details, as they say, are available. With 270 million Mainlanders already eligible to visit Hong Kong on an individual, multiple basis, it could be that this extra number may make relatively little difference. Having said that, they are right next door, not living hundreds of miles away in Shanghai or somewhere.
Stereotypically, the migrant workers are the social and economic underclass of modern urban China. They live in shanties or dorms; they work for pittances on construction sites; they have no access to subsidized public health or education services; they are prone to commit crime. In reality, most are probably clean-living, hard-working factory workers saving to start a business back in their home province or hoping to qualify for local ID.
The fact is that, while each one takes up the same space as your standard Mainland tourist, they probably on average have far less money to spend. So maybe they won’t come here because they can’t afford it. Alternatively, it could mean trouble. How long will it be before they find out that our hospitals treat patients for no fee and present bills on trust? How long before they find they can commute across the border to wash dishes or break scrap metal for double their Shenzhen wages? How long before some of them find Hongkongers are wimps who are easy to mug and carry lots of cash and fancy accessories?
Defenders of the government like to point out that we are all one country now, and Hong Kong must in time be as accessible as anywhere else. Shanghai, Chicago and Munich aren’t sealed off from the rest of their countries, and ultimately Hong Kong can’t be. But the differences between Hong Kong and its hinterland are so great as to cause serious distortions in travel patterns and the local market. Up there, there is a tax on luxury goods, the milk powder might be poisonous and the cosmetics might be fake and even dangerous; down here, designer labels are tax-free, the milk powder is pure and goods are real and safe. Until things have evened out, Hong Kong will be under artificial pressure from people wanting to visit. For poorer Mainlanders, it’s an arbitrageur’s (or smuggler’s) paradise.
One quick fix to the problem would be for Hong Kong to introduce its own tax on luxury goods; bingo, half the Mainlanders would go somewhere else. But this is looking at it logically from the public’s point of view. To our policymakers, millions of tourists are good, therefore tens of millions of tourists must be better, and hundreds of millions must be so utterly wonderful that words cannot describe it. No-one has ever done a cost-benefit analysis on all this, presumably because vested interests (landlords, basically) don’t want us to see how much the rest of us are subsidizing their huge profits.
Every time a mall puts a rent up to levels only a Mainland-serving luxury brand tenant can afford, the effects ripple out across the rest of the city. The previous tenant goes somewhere else, and a chain of relocations must take place, ending ultimately in a local store serving local people vanishing. And unlike small local operators, the labels and landlords promptly send much of their income out of Hong Kong, so it doesn’t circulate much in the local economy. For every job created, another has probably been lost. And prices and/or inconvenience go up for ordinary residents. Like so many others, South China Morning Post columnist Michael Chugani swallows the ‘retail-is-good’ line and says the sector would ‘die’ without Mainlanders. It wouldn’t die; it would simply go back to serving local needs. Abercrombie & Fitch’s multi-million emporium would die; the harmless China Tee Club would come back.
(The current market distortion also takes a toll on us through mental and physical stress created by the extra crowding and pollution. No tourist has yet been hurled to his death from the Mid-Levels Escalator, but I swear it is only a matter of time before a local resident snaps. Like so much of our infrastructure, it is clogged with guidebook-clutching hordes who think the transport system is a Disneyland ride just for them. I will happily be a defence witness.)
Of course, this way of looking at it presumes this phenomenon is being contrived to benefit the landlords – the same oligarchic property developers who already extract so much of our wealth. But it could be more subtle than that (or, indeed, less subtle). It could be that this is part of the whole sinister National Education, astronaut-worship, Mainlandization, conditioning-through-immersion preparation for 2047. A lot of not especially paranoid people perceive it that way, because it feels like it, and the benefits to the landlords and costs to everyone else are so extreme that they look like unintended consequences of a totally different and heavy handed policy that is being implemented too quickly.
A bureaucrat’s paranoid conspiracy theory to answer the above question on evil Mainland motives: Shenzhen’s leaders are unhappy that the Hong Kong government isn’t taking seriously their efforts to launch numerous financial and other grandiose-sounding hub-zone projects, so they are taking revenge by unleashing 4 million of their unwashed on us and landing the CY Leung administration in yet more doo-doo. (A purely fictitious idea, © 2012.)