Australia: Hong Kong's safety net Haven: Chinese immigrants are officially welcome in Australia, if they're well-heeled.


SYDNEY, Australia -- Perched atop the Sydney Harbor Bridge, Siu Wing Sing talks about the place where he could be -- back in Hong Kong, cautiously counting the days until July 1, when China takes control of what has been a British colony for 156 years.

Hong Kong has come to represent uncertainty, Australia to embody safety.

"It's a dream come true to be here," says Siu, a bridge maintenance worker. "Every day I remind myself of that, when I look out over the harbor and the city. I was lucky enough to get out and start a new life."

In the past 15 years, Australia has become a safety net for residents of Hong Kong. Siu and many others arrived with very little and out of necessity created new careers. But Australia now is more selective about new immigrants -- preferring the well-educated and especially the well-off.

Australia wants the "skilled and employable." In practice, that means that Hong Kong businessmen can buy their way to citizenship: A Hong Kong resident can receive a visa if he is proficient in English, proficient in business -- and if he invests $600,000 in a long-term government bond, in effect lending the money to the government.

Influx of capital

Of the 1,200 "business migrants" granted visas in 1995-1996, about one-third were Hong Kong residents and their families, who then transferred $276 million to Australia, a welcome influx of capital to a government confronting 9 percent unemployment and budget problems.

"Hong Kong is especially prosperous. A lot of people have capital. Many want to leave and the commercial elite speak English -- so that makes for fertile ground," says Phillip Ruddock, Australia's minister for immigration and ethnic affairs.

"With the demand they create for goods and services on arrival, immigrants create at least as many jobs as they take."

Hong Kong business executives have moved their families to well-to-do suburbs of Sydney, but that has not translated into a flood of new, job-creating enterprises. Most executives have kept their companies in Hong Kong -- where taxes and labor costs are lower -- and shuttle to Australia.

And they have invested primarily in real estate, not factories. The evidence includes the condominium towers rapidly sprouting on the edges of Sydney's Chinatown, ruffling the feelings of longtime Australian-Chinese residents who want to keep the neighborhood a quaint tourist stop.

Asian investors are also buying Sydney hotels, to profit from the surging number of Asian tourists.

"With more and more Hong Kong migrants coming here, it is inevitable that investment in Australia will grow," says Philip Chok, director of Hong Kong's trade office here.

"But I see more going the other way, simply because Australia is more focused on Asia and recognizes that China is the most dynamic market. The best way is to use the Hong Kong Chinese to get in."

The Hong Kong community in Australia now numbers around 100,000 people. "We've reached a critical mass in Hong Kong Chinese," says Henry Tsang, deputy lord mayor of Sydney.

"They can get anything they want here that they have at home. There is enough here to sponsor community events like sports and to get Hong Kong celebrities to perform."

But New Zealand and Britain -- not Hong Kong -- still account for the largest number of immigrants. In 1995-1996, China and Hong Kong were, respectively, the third- and fourth-largest sources of immigrants here -- about 15,000 out of a total of 99,000 people.

Asians now account for less than 5 percent of Australia's 18 million people; over the next 30 years, the figure is expected to rise to about 7.5 percent.

For Parliament member Pauline Hanson, that's still too many. The first-term legislator, owner of a fish-and-chips shop, was elected with no particular platform.

But in September she began to talk of a danger of Australia's "being swamped" by Asians. Since then, she has become a lightning rod for a national debate on immigration.

Most of Hanson's support comes from rural areas and among unemployed young adults and retirees. They see Asians as an unwelcome source of job competition, as recipients of their government benefits, as ruthless managers of an increasing part of the nation's economy and as people who resist assimilation.

In April, Hanson launched the One Nation Party. Its announced goals include ending immigration until unemployment declines substantially, and canceling all land rights of Aborigines, who preceded white settlers by thousands of years.

With help from unidentified co-authors, she also produced a book called "Pauline Hanson -- The Truth," in which she predicts that in 50 years Australia will be home to 1.8 billion Asians and will be ruled by a "cyborg-lesbian-Chinese-Indian."

Her movement is part of a familiar cycle of xenophobia. When Britain decided Australia was suitable as a penal colony, beginning in 1788, many of the first British convicts to arrive were convinced China was just past the mountains around Sydney and feared they would be killed by the Chinese.

When gold was discovered in 1851, the Chinese jumped onto ships and moved here en masse. But when the gold fields were tapped out and the economy tumbled, Australians sought to expel them, calling the Chinese thieves and liars. Exclusion laws and violence were the means.

Expel the industrious

"Our chief plank, of course, is a 'White Australia,' " William Hughes, leader of Australia's Labor Party, said in the late 1800s. "The industrious colored brother has to go -- and remain away."

And "White Australia" became national policy by the time the Australian federation came into being, in 1901. The Labor Party did not remove it from its platform until 1964, after increasing criticism and worries about Australia's image.

But even non-Asian immigrants have also been abused. The Italians, Greeks, Turks and Lebanese who came in the 1950s and 1960s faced taunts from the British and Irish descendants of the first settlers.

Government leaders predict the Hanson movement will die, just as other extremist movements have. But they hope it withers soon, when the economy improves -- and before more Australians begin to blame immigrants from Hong Kong for the nation's economic ills.

And before the Asians take their capital elsewhere.

Pub Date: 6/09/97

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