To no-one’s great surprise, the Court of Final Appeal rejects foreign domestic helpers’ claim to right of abode in Hong Kong. This is a story with several very distinct angles.
There’s the rule of law angle. If the CFA hadn’t ruled against the Filipino maids, the government would almost certainly have asked the rubber-stamp Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to ‘interpret’ the relevant part of the Basic Law. In practice, this means amending the law through the back door purely for the sake of political expediency. Such an intrusion of Mainland-style rule of man damages Hong Kong’s rule of law; ultimately, if pragmatism demands an injustice, it is preferable to do it on this side of the border and preserve at least some integrity for the local legal system.
There’s an interesting cui bono angle – who benefits? This ruling keeps foreign domestic helpers in middle-class Hong Kong’s homes, doing the cooking, cleaning and child-minding. This frees up middle-class wives to work; they need to, because otherwise the families can’t pay the mortgage. They can’t pay the mortgage because the government has rigged the housing market to make homes ridiculously overpriced. Take the maids away, and many double-income households would become single-income, inevitably meaning less wealth being available to flow from the middle-class workforce to the half-dozen families running the local property-developer cartel. Sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it’s just joining the dots.
There’s a subliminal nationalism angle. Most of the helpers concerned are from the Philippines. The Philippines is a joke country; it is the Asian nation China can most easily bully, but it is also the one most likely to mishandle or overreact to intimidation. From Beijing’s point of view, it is appropriate that Hong Kong keeps Filipinos in their place. To Manila, this case could be a reminder that the most demeaning treatment Filipinos receive is from their own country’s incompetent leadership, which leaves them with no option but to migrate – but it probably won’t.
There’s the principles vs populism angle. The government was desperate to get this result because of overwhelming public opposition to allowing Filipino maids’ kids into Hong Kong (as with Mainland mothers, subject to a separate court case). This is the same government that constantly tells us that we have a pressing demographic crisis that can only be solved through a boost in the number of children – and that we shouldn’t discriminate against brown people and Mainlanders.
And that leads to a cultural and racial angle, summed up by the New York Times, which asks if Hong Kong will embrace a more multi-ethnic future. As with legal systems and age demographics, this case highlights Hong Kong’s values schizophrenia. On the one hand, the city is supposed to be part of the People’s Republic of China, with the national anthem on TV and smiling patriotic schoolchildren – sons and daughters of the dragon – waving red flags to greet visiting Chinese astronauts and Olympians. On the other hand, the city fancies itself as a diverse melting pot like New York or London, attracting the brightest and the best from around the world, as indeed it must if it is to maintain the region’s biggest clusters of financial, legal, technical and other skills. In practice, much of Han Hong Kong is insular, culturally solidly Chinese and fears external competition, while a smaller part of the ethnic Chinese populace are cosmopolitan and, often, Western-educated. The first group are in Beijing’s eyes surely the ‘politically correct’ population; the second group plus some non-Chinese are what keeps the place ticking. It is a contradiction Hong Kong government officials can’t resolve, so they wing it.
As, perhaps, does the Court of Final Appeal.