Strangers in Paradise

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NISID HAJARI Chen Guanming has a big house in the booming southern Chinese city of Dongguan. He shares the two-story, 240-sq-m dwelling with his mother and brother. They have a balcony, even a small courtyard out back. But the house isn't big enough for Guanming's hopes. Over hamburgers and Cokes at the neighborhood McDonald's, the shy 12-year-old's eyes light up when he thinks of Hong Kong, where his father, a butcher, lives. It's a prosperous and funky town with lots of interesting games, he says with certainty. There he would have a computer, a Sega video game and a big, big house with lots of new friends. The hamburger he is wolfing down, he insists, would surely taste better in Hong Kong.Alas, the one-time crown colony has no special sauce. Its McDonald's outlets are identical to Dongguan's, only more crowded and noisy. So is the home that awaits Guanming and his younger brother--a sterile and uninviting apartment measuring only 10-sq-m. Yet that may be where he's headed, now that Hong Kong's highest court has ruled that any child born to a permanent resident has the right to live in the city. Beijing made ominous noises over last month's court decision, sparking fears that Hong Kong's legal independence could be in jeopardy (see box). But if the ruling holds, it means that Guanming--and perhaps half a million others like him--are set to become Hong Kong's newest citizens. The influx may be more than the territory can handle. Mainlanders like Guanming carry vastly overblown dreams that are certain to be disappointed. And in the current climate--the local economy shrank 7.1% in the third quarter last year--that has fueled an equally grand fear among Hong Kong natives: of invasion by an army of disaffected, unemployable youngsters. Economically and socially, this is going to cause huge problems, says insurance executive Vicki Chan. Everyone is contemplating chaos in Hong Kong.With 6.8 million people crammed onto thin swathes of developed land, Hong Kong strictly manages the inflow of new residents. The court ruling could throw that effort into disarray. Officials had expected 66,000 mainland children to emigrate to Hong Kong between the July 1997 handover and this coming July. (About 43,000 have arrived so far.) Now that even illegitimate children are eligible, as well as those born before either of their parents became a resident, the number could exceed 500,000. Census-takers have spread out across Hong Kong and the nearby coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian to develop a reliable estimate of how many children qualify under the new rules. PAGE 1  |    |    
 
Accurate results will be hard to obtain: some Hong Kong men will no doubt be reluctant to own up to the children they have had by mistresses in China, while several of those second wives have already said they would not send their kids across the border unless they could accompany them. Officials have not even decided how to regulate the pace of immigration (at the moment, only 150 entrants a day are allowed), and have refused to let those visiting Hong Kong stay past the expiration of their visas. This is inhuman, says 50-year-old Kwok Ching-peng, whose daughter now faces arrest for having overstayed her visa. The government promises us one thing, and then they do another. Where is justice?What worries many experts is that the chaos is likely to worsen after all of those eligible have crossed the border. According to Peter Hills, director of the Centre of Urban Planning and Environmental Management at the University of Hong Kong, the city's population should grow naturally to more than 7.5 million by the year 2011; if 500,000 more immigrants are allowed in, Hong Kong would reach that density eight years ahead of schedule. The territory already bears the scars of its industrious millions--smog, dank streets and a harbor filled with waste. Hong Kong is very delicately balanced at the moment, warns Hills. It's pushing the limits of environmental sustainability. The additional influx could raise pollution to intolerable levels, while municipal workers would be hard pressed to clean up after such a teeming population.Nor have authorities shown that they can house so many newcomers. By law, immigrants and their families must cool their heels for seven years before even qualifying for public housing. After that, the average wait for a public apartment is another seven years, trapping many families in squalid, often decrepit buildings. Before the court's ruling, Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa had pledged to reduce the latter delay to three years. But his administration has yet to reach its target of building 50,000 new units a year and, says housing activist Virginia Ip, will need to construct at least twice that number just to satisfy current demand. The dearth of realistic ideas for relieving the crunch does not bode well: Lee Wing-tat, the Democratic Party's housing specialist, can only suggest that already-breadbox-sized apartments be built smaller so that more of them can be squeezed onto the available land.The critical issue, however, may not be space but time. Locating land and then designing and building the infrastructure for additional housing, schools and hospitals takes from three to five years, so the impact of new immigrants will vary greatly depending upon the pace of the influx. The local school system, though already crowded, should be able to cope at first. Officials claim they have room in the coming year for an additional 25,000 primary and secondary students. Already, some 50 organizations support the Education Department with language and assimilation programs for mainlanders. Most activists believe the newcomers can succeed--often discrimination actually drives them to excel at their studies--but only if their numbers are matched by additional teachers and classrooms. The ultimate solution is to build more schools, but schools can't be built in one day, says Li Che-Cheung, a senior education officer.   |  2  |    
 
The bigger fears revolve around the adults who may qualify for residency, especially with unemployment running at a record 5.8%. We don't think Hong Kong can further absorb these workers, says labor activist and legislator Lee Cheuk-yan. Weak language skills are likely to exclude many immigrants from high-wage jobs, while most labor-intensive industries have moved to the mainland. Unlike the wave of Shanghai industrialists who fled to Hong Kong after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, the newcomers are not expected to inject either capital or technology into the local economy. If you bring in people during a boom time, when everyone already has a job, they're seen as making a contribution, says Lee. The vocal reaction to admitting more immigrants indicates how tight things have already gotten for many locals.Mainlanders who have come to Hong Kong recently can testify to that pain. Mok Lai-ping, 13, had dreams as big as Chen Guanming's when she arrived two years ago. I thought I would be living in a big house with the whole family together, she says. I thought I would be very happy because I could see lots of skyscrapers. I thought I would be able to escape from carrying brooms to school to sweep the floor. Instead Lai-ping lives in a 7-sq-m flat in a grubby Kowloon neighborhood, scratching out her homework on a coffee tray atop a rumpled bunk bed. Her mother and sister share the bottom bunk; their cramped quarters cost $490 a month, nearly half the $1,100 monthly welfare check the family receives from the government. Eventually I hope my life will be better, says Lai-ping. Many of her brethren will no doubt be shocked to find that her wish--the immigrant's mantra--is not fulfilled merely by moving to the capitalist enclave.Similarly, Hong Kong's residents will likely be surprised by how many of their fears go unrealized. Cecilia Chan, dean of social sciences at the University of Hong Kong, dismisses concerns that migrants will overload the health-care system. Statistically speaking, she notes, people aged 5 to 45 seldom go into hospitals. Nor will all of those who qualify want to move to Hong Kong, particularly those adults who already enjoy a comfortable standard of living in China. Unionist Lee's party, the Frontier, has called on Beijing to allow migrants to maintain dual residency rights, so they can return if they do not take to Hong Kong. And like most anti-immigrant fervor, much of the current rhetoric is fueled by simple prejudice, so time and familiarity could quell the more outlandish worries.Eventually, the newcomers could become indispensable contributors to the economy. The graying of Hong Kong's population poses a serious threat to future prosperity, as an increasing number of elderly rely for support on a shrinking number of wage earners. A report by Hang Seng Bank released before the court ruling predicted that the labor force would grow just 1.4% annually over the next decade, as opposed to the 2.1% average rate of the past 17 years. For the economy to keep up and to maintain our standard of living, the working population would have to work harder, says Vincent Kwan, Hang Seng's senior economic research manager. An increase in the supply of labor would benefit the economy. That's one hope that Hong Kong's newest and oldest residents can both share. Reported by Maria Cheng and Wendy Kan/Hong Kong and Isabella Ng/Dongguan  |    |  3