Second would be the problem of housing prices. A sudden rush of well-off immigrants could drive Sydney and Melbourne housing prices to levels even more unaffordable for ordinary Australians. This is exactly what happened in the case of the Canadian city of Vancouver in the 1990s. And rising house prices in Australia at a time of high unemployment would be especially aggravating.
Third is the pandemic problem. The border is closed. Even the border between NSW and Victoria. How could you safely allow mass movements from abroad?
Fourth is the risk that any wave of Hong Kong immigrants into Australia could contain covert agents of Chinese Communist Party influence to reinforce the subversive work of the United Front Work Department.
Fifth is the moral question. How can Australia justify making special arrangements for relatively well-off people losing their liberties in one country over the 34 million refugees already driven from their homelands by war or other trauma worldwide?
Sixth is the question of the Chinese government’s retaliation. A Beijing spokesman has said that Britain can expect “countermeasures” for its decision and warned Australia not to “go further down the wrong path”.
The CCP already has launched a multi-pronged pressure campaign against Australia – a propaganda effort lashing Australia as a “racist” country, a freeze on political contact, punitive measures in place or threatened against some $25 billion worth of Australian exports, and intensive cyber intrusion.
And the other side of the story? The first four problems I’ve listed are all problems of management, not principle. With careful management, risks can be minimised or eliminated. The number and timing of Hong Kong immigrants can be controlled to prevent big or disruptive movements. For instance, there are a few tens of thousands of Hong Kong people living in Australia already, on temporary visas or with permanent residency. Canberra could allow them favourable terms for winning full citizenship. The only thing that would change would be their immigration status, and sense of security.
New inflows could be controlled so that numbers are modest and manageable. The options before the cabinet tomorrow will not include anything like the British scale but will be limited to tens of thousands.
All arrivals during the pandemic would need to be subject to health checks. And the authorities would need to conduct security screening – Australia welcomes people who value our democratic liberties, not hostile forces that would prefer to extinguish them.
As for the moral question, it may be unfair but while Australia’s immigration program has a humanitarian quota it is also a national recruitment project. As a Canadian immigration lawyer, Richard Kurland, put it: “This is probably going to be the greatest human capital harvest in recent memory.”
The Australian policy will give priority to entrepreneurs, business people, investors and, possibly, entire companies that want to relocate from Hong Kong to Australia. In other words, the idea is to favour immigrants who will create as many jobs as possible, not “take” jobs.
And Beijing’s retaliation? The Chinese government will find or create any pretext to continue pressuring Australia. President Xi Jinping has sent “a high-level central party decision concerning Australia to every government ministry and to officials running China’s state-owned enterprises at home and abroad, along with tourism and education agents in China, that people around Xi have adopted a hostile approach towards Australia”, the Australian sinologist John Fitzgerald wrote last month.
It’s already happening and will continue in any case, so Australia should simply continue to act in its national interest and not live in fear. A policy to welcome Hong Kong’s high-quality talent will be inherently a self-interested one of national gain, but will be presented as a principled act in defence of liberty.
If well managed, it is a good idea that will work for Australia and create problems for Beijing. It’d be a bad look for China’s people to be fleeing in fear of their government. And besides, the CCP would have to find a new line of propaganda attack against Australia – it could hardly call such a decision racist.
Peter Hartcher is international editor.
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Peter Hartcher is political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.