The United Kingdom’s population is shrinking, and the alarm bells have been ringing for some time. Whereas the Office for National Statistics says it stood at 67.1 million in 2020, the Economic Statistics Center of Excellence reported in March that 1.3 million people left the UK between 2019 and 2020. Even if the departure figure is an overestimate, and only 1 million had left, it would still mean a population decrease of 1.5 percent, the biggest since 1941, when it was 2.5 percent.
Of particular concern is the age of those departing. In February, the Oxford University Migration Observatory reported that those leaving the UK in the largest numbers were younger, working-age people in their 20s and 30s, many disillusioned by Brexit. The hardest-hit city is London, although the problem extends beyond departures.
On April 16, the ONS reported that the UK’s population growth rate in the year up to mid-2020 dropped to 0.47 percent, down from 0.54 percent in the year to mid-2019. Moreover, 2020 was the first year in decades in which more people died in the UK than were born, and the fertility rate fell to its lowest level on record. The economist Jonathan Portes, of King’s College London, who studies migration, says “It looks as if 2020 was the first year since World War II that we saw a really significant population fall across the UK”.
This situation, inevitably, has economic ramifications. Although the UK’s unemployment rate fell to 4.7 percent in the second quarter of 2021, job vacancies reached a record high, hitting 953,000 in the three months to July. Numerous areas are suffering, and, for example, Ian Brown, the vice-chairman of the East of Scotland Growers cooperative, says there are “not enough workers to harvest our vegetable crops, meaning they are going to waste”. Even when goods are available, there are delivery problems, and David Brown, the CEO of New View Economics, notes that the “economy is short of 100,000 truck drivers, causing backlogs, supply shortages and potential output delays”.
Once the insurrection broke out in Hong Kong in 2019, the British government sensed an opportunity. If the city’s population could be lured away, this would not only help resolve the labor problems, but also poke Beijing in the eye. After all, ties between the UK and its former colony have remained close after 1997, and Hong Kong people, it was reasoned, have much to offer. If, therefore, they moved to Britain, this could boost its economy, albeit at Hong Kong’s expense
Whereas cheap labor from the EU could once be relied upon to make up any shortfalls, particularly casual workers for the summer months, this ended when the UK left the bloc. Indeed, many people backed Brexit precisely because of their resentment at the influx of huge numbers of unskilled EU workers, often from Eastern Europe. While, to keep his base onside, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has to tread carefully on immigration, he also needs to keep the economy operating, and labor has to be obtained from somewhere.
Quite clearly, Johnson has no interest in reopening the EU floodgates, still less employing the thousands of migrants who are entering the UK illegally by crossing the English Channel. Although he has agreed to take some Afghan refugees, the number is capped at 20,000 over years, which is a drop in the bucket, and many are children. Workers, therefore, need to be found from elsewhere, although this situation should have been foreseen. It has yet to be explained why the labor shortages which were already developing before Brexit and have since worsened were not adequately prepared for, and the result now is panic stations.
Once the insurrection broke out in Hong Kong in 2019, the British government sensed an opportunity. If the city’s population could be lured away, this would not only help resolve the labor problems, but also poke Beijing in the eye. After all, ties between the UK and its former colony have remained close after 1997, and Hong Kong people, it was reasoned, have much to offer. If, therefore, they moved to Britain, this could boost its economy, albeit at Hong Kong’s expense.
There was, of course, logic in Johnson’s plan, as many people in Hong Kong are fluent in English, understand Western ways and can easily assimilate. Their work ethic and can-do mentality are legendary, and, if they could be persuaded to up sticks, this could save the day. Since the UK already has a sizable Chinese population, it should not be too difficult for them to settle down, and many of them would have enough money to buy their own homes. They are, moreover, not the complaining sort, and could be relied upon not to rock the boat, let alone antagonize the neighbors.
Using the cover of the National Security Law, therefore, Johnson announced in mid-2020 that up to 3 million British National (Overseas) passport holders would be encouraged to move to the UK. To persuade them, the new National Security Law for Hong Kong was demonized, and scare stories were spread about China and its governance in Hong Kong. To make people fear for their rule of law, the then-foreign secretary, the hapless Dominic Raab, since demoted, stoked fears that British judges might soon be quitting their posts in the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. This scurrilous campaign proceeded in tandem with attempts to paint the UK as the land of milk and honey, in which rights could be fully enjoyed. Once, moreover, it emerged that some less-well-off migrants would face financial difficulties, with some even having second thoughts, loans and other financial incentives miraculously appeared, together with welcoming church groups.
In desperation, therefore, Johnson was pulling out all the stops, but he clearly felt the prize was worth it. He had, however, to be careful, not least because his governing Conservative Party is the traditional home of everybody who believes that immigration must be strictly controlled, if not ended. Indeed, for Johnson to suddenly start urging huge numbers of Hong Kong people to move to the UK was playing with fire, although it demonstrated just how grave the manpower shortage had become.
To condition the British people to the influx, Raab joined hands with anti-China forces in Parliament and the media, and even the ex-governor, Chris Patten, who needed little encouragement, was roped in. With relish, they, and their outriders, set about propagating myths about the huge dangers people were now facing in Hong Kong, and how Britain was honor bound to ride to their rescue. Endless references were made to alleged Chinese breaches of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, which most Britons have never heard of, let alone read, and many people were taken in. But, although a fraud was being perpetrated, the less gullible realized what was afoot.
After all, if Johnson wants foreign labor so badly, there are many places, including former British colonies, from which he could choose. If national security laws are a genuine concern, he could have pointed Raab in the direction of Malaysia and Singapore, both ex-colonies, which have far tougher security regimes than Hong Kong’s. As both places, moreover, unlike Hong Kong, retain the death penalty, and have not signed up to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Raab could easily have made a moral case for luring their citizens away. This, however, would have antagonized close partners, and, if anyone was to be disrespected, it should be China, given that this is a policy objective of the US-led Five Eyes intelligence alliance, to which the UK belongs. In other words, Johnson, egged on by Raab, was only too happy, when it suited him, to resurrect 19th-century colonial mindsets, however upsetting for China.
There are, moreover, millions of people around the world who would jump at the chance to move to the UK, including many in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, but Johnson has no interest in them. Even though many are starving, displaced and living in great danger, and in genuine need of a safe home, his focus is solely on Hong Kong. His difficulty, however, is that the city has a vibrant economy, excellent positioning, low tax rates, high wages, safe streets and a bright future, not all of which can be said of the UK.
Where immigration is concerned, Johnson is highly discriminating, and the Conservative Party expects no less of him. Those people who genuinely need a new life in the UK are, therefore, simply not his concern. He imagines that the British economy can best be serviced by attracting Hong Kong’s brightest and best, no matter the consequences. Like the opium traders of old, he is oblivious to the harm his plans could cause China, and probably relishes the prospect.
Of the 3 million people said to be eligible to move to the UK, the British government considers that no more than 322,400 will actually go. If so, it is said this could benefit the British economy to the tune of about 2.9 billion pounds ($4.0 billion). It is estimated that between 123,000 and 153,700 people will move to the UK in the scheme’s first year, although this may be an exaggeration. Between January and June 2021, 64,000 applications were received, of which only 47,300 applicants were granted visas by June 30. With the initial rush over, the number of applications may now be expected to bottom out.
Of those moving to the UK, many will face disillusionment, once reality sets in. Promises of a better future may be attractive for people with limited prospects and young children, but the grass is not always greener on the other side. Post-Brexit Britain faces many problems, including a failing health system, inadequate housing, rising crime, racial tensions and overcrowded schools, and grassroots resentment of outsiders is legendary. Unless they are highly skilled, new arrivals could find themselves having to take uncongenial work in a strange environment, which will bring them down to earth with a thud. Although some of those emigrating are political malcontents and criminal fugitives with little choice, many, sadly, are ordinary people, seduced by the allure of fool’s gold, and they may come to rue their decision.
Even if, however, as many as 300,000 people were to fall for Johnson’s blandishments, this would still be manageable. After all, in the run-up to 1997, approximately 200,000 to 300,000 people left Hong Kong, without causing any great problems, and many later returned. Indeed, the economist Francis Lui Ting-ming points out that an exodus of this size could be beneficial for those who remain, as they will have better prospects. The departures, he explained, will also create space for Chinese mainland talent and international technology professionals to come to Hong Kong, thereby advancing its development.
If, moreover, some people do not appreciate Hong Kong and want to live elsewhere, then good riddance, and the city will be better off without them. The reason Hong Kong has always prospered is because of the commitment of those who care for it, and devote themselves to its welfare. Once the dreamers, the fainthearted and the malcontents have departed, the city will enjoy greater unity and be able to focus on its core objectives, which include helping the country to realize its full potential.
The author is a senior counsel, law professor and criminal justice analyst, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.