UK tough talk on immigration has implications for Hong Kong

Updated: 2015-07-23 07:27

By Tim Collard(HK Edition)

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Prior to its somewhat unexpected United Kingdom election victory in May, worries were voiced within the Conservative Party that it might lose votes to the far right wing, because of fears about immigration. Hence the UK Home Secretary Theresa May, who remained in place, has decided to give the impression of taking a hard line - and of displaying the government's commitment to turbo-capitalism at the same time.

Because of the European Union's (EU) "freedom of movement" laws, there is nothing Prime Minister David Cameron's government - or any British government - can do about immigration from other EU countries, even though this is widely perceived as posing the biggest threat to British jobs. So the government is getting tougher on immigrants from outside the EU.

Obviously, no country - particularly no small and crowded one - can run an entirely open immigration policy. There will always be types of immigrants which a country prefers to other types, depending on what they have to offer society. But the British government seems to have defined this in grossly oversimplified terms. From April 2016, migrants from outside the EU who have lived and worked in Britain for at least five years must earn at least 35,000 pounds (about HK$424,000) per year, or risk being deported.

Now, this sum probably signifies very little to Theresa May, who lives in fantastically expensive London and is married to a banker. Outside London, and outside the financial sector, this is actually quite a lot to be earning five years into one's career. People working in professions like teaching or nursing might be making a considerable contribution to society without earning large salaries. Yet the UK is in great need of such people, whereas the need for still more finance professionals is somewhat questionable.

Hong Kong has been part of one of the UK's biggest immigration success stories. In the days before the influx of students and professionals from Taiwan and the mainland, immigrants from Hong Kong made their way into professions and communities all over the UK, and became particularly prominent in small business circles in all sectors. Many of these small businesses were indeed very profitable after five years. But others took longer to establish themselves and create real profits.

Until recently, earnings levels or profit margins were not considered the sole or even the major criterion by which one legitimated one's presence among the UK population. Of course, no country wants to take in immigrants who will only become a burden on the state. But the number of people of Chinese origin claiming benefits has always been vanishingly small. Our immigrants have paid their way.

No doubt many Hong Kong people will be attracted to the UK by the possibility of high-paying jobs in the fabulously lucrative financial service industry in London, and will thus have nothing to fear from the new regulations. But we would not wish to stereotype Hong Kong people, or Chinese people in general, as solely or primarily motivated by money. For historical reasons, Hong Kong has long been the UK's gateway to the mainland. It would make sense for the country to continue to attract people who embody all aspects of the culture and civilization of China, including the arts and the creative industries. There is more to the UK than money, even if some in government seem to find this hard to understand.

International students already pay hair-raising amounts to study in the UK. Now, Theresa May tells us that the new immigration rules are aimed at "exercising control to ensure that only the brightest and best remain permanently". The suggestion is that the brightest and best will always be the ones earning the most money. It is a convenient assumption for those who earn lots of money and wish to convince themselves and others that they themselves must be the brightest and the best - rather than having simply having found themselves in a fortunate situation.

At the same time, the UK government is looking for easy shortcuts to solve difficult problems. It wishes to convince citizens that current figures for non-EU immigration can be reduced by more than half. Quite a lot of the immigrants are family members of people already in the country, largely from the Indian subcontinent. These people may not make a significant economic contribution. But because of their families and sponsors within the UK, excluding them would cause all sorts of political consequences. Far easier to name some arbitrary financial sum and use that to exclude people - not for any cultural or even economic advantage, but merely to make an ostentatious display of "iron will".

Many people, including British citizens, are asking: When will the UK government realize that a country becomes prosperous through poor people getting rich, rather than through wealthy people staying rich?

The author is a former UK diplomat specializing in China. He spent nine years as an analyst in Beijing. He now works as a freelance writer and commentator.

(HK Edition 07/23/2015 page9)