Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam recently did a question-and-answer session on Facebook. An online forum would present her as trendy, hip and groovy, and in touch with the modern youth of today.
The organizers apparently screened out all messages concerning gay rights, reflecting Carrie’s extreme discomfort with the subject. But they did let through comments about the even more-sensitive issue of Mainland immigration.
The basic facts: since the daily intake was doubled at the handover in 1997, around one million newcomers from the Mainland have settled in Hong Kong for family-reunion purposes; the migrants are processed and selected by Mainland authorities, and few are especially well-educated or skilled; this accounts for most of the net increase in population over that time.
Carrie repeated the government’s official, touchy line that this influx is utterly unchangeable and is not even worth mentioning, and anyway we need the kids for future labour-supply. We are all immigrants, and it’s uncivilized and beastly to pick on people for their origins.
Mainstream pro-democrats largely go along with this reasoning. They are reluctant to oppose the reunion of families, and are wary of appearing to be against fellow Chinese. The more grassroots-oriented ones are naturally sympathetic to Mainland immigrants, who tend to suffer various disadvantages and discrimination.
The younger radical localists are more raucous and less politically correct. While most are smart and decent enough not to abuse Mainlanders in the street, they make rude comments about the impact of the new arrivals on local culture. More practically, perhaps, they ask pointed questions about how Hong Kong, with its shortage of land, is supposed to accommodate all these people, who will mostly enter the queue for public housing. Some green and urban planning activists wonder about this too.
So we have a sort-of contradiction.
On the one hand, arousing populist anti-immigrant sentiment is nasty (think Trump, Brexit, Italy, Australia, Korea, you name it). Polite, open-minded, cool people are supposed to embrace diversity and recognize how immigrants get the job done, etc.
On the other hand, it is undeniable that the addition of a million extra residents in Hong Kong has increased demand for housing and other facilities. There is no other reason why low-end rents have risen so much faster than incomes and sub-divided apartments have hugely increased in number.
The reality is that mass-immigration from the Mainland into Hong Kong is Beijing policy – hence Carrie’s insistence that it is non-negotiable. To a Communist Party seeking to tighten control, it’s a basic Sinicization technique as applied in Tibet and Xinjiang (the newcomers even make good election fodder). The parallel inadequate housing supply is either the result of astounding official negligence, or a calculated strategy to suppress local birthrates and squeeze the indigenous population out. One clue: the same government that says Mainland immigrants are necessary urges (educated) local young people to leave.
One pan-democrat, Roy Tam, has hit out at Carrie’s pro-immigration comments. He hints at a very provocative line of questioning. How come Mainlanders can have families but local young people can’t? Why do we have to go to the ‘Bay Area’ for opportunities while the ‘Bay Area’ moves in here? What is the point of desperately looking for more land just to fill it with a stream of outsiders?
This is potentially an explosive issue. Luckily for the government, its detractors are too squeamish or inept to go there.