International Policy Digest

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World News /21 Nov 2020
11.21.20

The UK is Trying to Poach Highly Skilled Hong Kongers

In July, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a new citizenship offer for Hong Kong residents providing them an easy “route” to obtain British citizenship. This was provided in response to China’s new security law which, according to the prime minister, was in violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. This offer is only available to those Hong Kong residents who possess a British National (Overseas) passport.

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, stated that the UK would not “look the other way” in terms of the citizenship offer and that they would fulfill their historic responsibilities to the people of Hong Kong. The offer will be provided from January 2021 onwards. The offer will give Overseas passport holders and their dependents the right to work and study in the UK for a period of five years after which they can apply for settled status and eventually citizenship. Given China’s imposition of the draconian security law, it is expected that this offer will enable many Hong Kong residents to migrate to the UK.

During the handover in 1997, Britain introduced a new form of nationality solely for the people of Hong Kong called the British National (Overseas) nationality. This nationality could only be acquired by citizens of British Overseas Territories, who are people that permanently resided in Hong Kong prior to 1997. At present, there are 300,000 Overseas passport holders to whom this citizenship offer is applicable. However, the Home Office clarified that the offer would also be extended to the 2.9 million Hong Kongers who are eligible to apply for an Overseas passport. Most of these people who have held an Overseas passport in the past have not renewed it.

Offer Details

Currently, Hong Kongers are permitted to stay visa-free in the UK for a period of six months subject to immigration controls. They do not have the right to live, work, or undertake long-term study in the UK. The new citizenship offer allows an Overseas passport holder to stay in the UK for an initial period of 30 months, extendable by another 30 months, or a cumulative period of 5 years. Holders will have a right to work and study in the UK, but they will not be entitled to social welfare benefits. After five years, they can apply to settle in the UK and then be potentially eligible to apply for British citizenship.

Certain pre-requisites are that one must be able to financially support themselves in the UK for at least 6 months, must know or be committed to learning English, and can afford to pay a fee and the immigration health surcharge. This essentially means that along with a language requirement, holders must also be skilled enough to financially support themselves for at least 6 months. By logical extension, one can come to the conclusion that this citizenship offer only enables skilled and educated Hong Kongers from following through with the citizenship offer. The eligibility criteria, therefore, is inherently biased towards the privileged and invariably ensures immigration of high skilled workers as opposed to low skilled labour.

High Skilled Migration and the Economy

In the context of skill, Douglas McWilliams in his book, The Flat White Economy, suggests two effects of immigration – first, migration alleviates skill bottlenecks and removes barriers to faster growth, and second, it boosts diversity and creativity which enhances productivity and thereby, directly and indirectly, affects economic growth.

A 2014 survey indicated that despite a large amount of immigration in London a substantial amount of skill shortages was present. A high proportion of businessmen are of the opinion that their growth is constricted because of a lack of skilled labour. High skilled migration would essentially alleviate this blockage and enable economic growth. In fact, a study by the UK-based National Institute for Economic and Social Research concluded that industries with higher shares of migrant workers had higher labour productivity. A major contributor to London’s economic growth in the digital economy occurred primarily because of skilled, migrant labour.

The Case of Hong Kong

Hong Kong is currently one of the leading entrepreneurial hubs in the world. Hong Kong’s global GDP per capita rank in 2020 was 15 and it was ranked 3rd and 5th on the Ease of Doing Business Index and the World Competitiveness Yearbook, respectively. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has ranked Hong Kong 4th in the world for math and reading, and 10th for science.

This is clear evidence of Hong Kong’s remarkable achievements as a small territory constantly in conflict with its larger parent country, China. As mentioned by McWilliams, there is a dearth of skill in the UK’s economy and migrant population which indicates that the UK must make the move from low-skilled to high-skilled migration. This citizenship offer automatically weeds out low-skilled, uneducated migrants thereby enabling only the highly-skilled, hardworking, and wealthy migrants to avail of this offer. This inevitably ensures high-skilled migration from Hong Kong to the UK.

Additionally, because Hong Kong is a major commercial hub it has developed crucial links across Asia which will enable the UK to take advantage of these connections and expand its connections in Asia. The UK will thus be able to establish crucial links across the world, facilitating the Global Britain narrative as opposed to the Little England version of Britain. The Johnson government intends to establish Britain’s global presence after Brexit.

The UK’s economy is a migrant-based economy. In fact, research has shown that if migration to the UK was halted in 1990, the economy would be 9% smaller than it is now, which is tantamount to a real GDP loss of over £175 billion.

High skilled migrants have also significantly contributed towards regional economic clusters such as California’s Silicon Valley or London’s financial district. The innovative leadership in such areas has quite often been characterised by the skill of migrants who play a central and disproportionate role in the success of such clusters. The global market for skilled migration tends to be highly integrated since the most productive are willing to work in places with the highest rewards. This is why most innovation centres are coagulation of migrant workers who contribute immensely with innovative global ideas and talent. The tremendous growth and subsequent rewards from these clusters attract even more migrants who contribute more innovative skills, international connections, and additional benefits associated with diversity inevitably leading to a virtuous cycle.

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Theresa May’s agenda post-Brexit was to systematically reduce low-skilled migration to the UK. A skill-based system of migration was introduced upon the advice of the Migration Advisory Committee in 2018 who advised that higher-skilled migrants earn more thereby contributing positively to public finances. In furtherance of this agenda, Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought to introduce a points-based immigration system which would prevent lower-skilled migrants from entering the UK unless there was any “specific shortage” of low-skilled labour in a particular sector.

Hong Kong’s entrepreneurial citizenry enables the UK to achieve the end of increasing highly skilled migration in the UK thereby contributing to its economy and enabling the UK to establish global trade relations independent of the European Union. This citizenship offer can, therefore, only be said to be a means to attain the UK’s political agenda of increasing high skilled migration and their genuine concern regarding the safety and security of the people of Hong Kong remains questionable.