Canada’s ‘huge’ and ‘remarkable’ immigration offer to Hongkongers is partly political, partly pragmatic

Ian Young
·9-min read

When Canada unveiled new details of its open work permit scheme for Hongkongers this month, it framed the action as part of a defence of democratic values, against Beijing’s “controversial national security law”.

Canada stood “shoulder to shoulder with the people of Hong Kong”, and the new scheme showed Ottawa’s “solidarity with other like-minded allies”, said Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino.

But the programme, first announced in November, also represents one of the opening salvoes in a contest among Western countries to attract talented young people from Hong Kong, amid the city’s political upheaval.

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Immigration experts on both sides of the Pacific said they were greatly surprised by the Canadian scheme’s scope, calling it “huge” and “remarkable”.

The scheme, which officially opened on Monday, is scheduled to run until 2023 and is available to anyone from Hong Kong who has graduated with a postsecondary degree or diploma that is equivalent to Canadian qualifications, in the past five years.

Unlike most other work-based schemes, the three-year permits do not require applicants to have Canadian employment lined up. There are no age limits. There are no financial restrictions, and no language tests.

And Canada’s Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship told the South China Morning Post that criminal convictions under the national security law would be no impediment to applicants.

Meet the transnationals, who moved to Canada but never quite left Hong Kong

“I’ve been doing Canada immigration for 29 years and I’ve never seen something so flexible,” said Jean-Francois Harvey, the Hong Kong-based founder and managing partner of the Harvey Law Group.

“A fresh graduate can come in. No language requirement. No minimum funds. It’s an open door,” said Harvey.

In Vancouver, fellow immigration lawyer Ryan Rosenberg was also unprepared for the scheme’s scope, calling it “wild”.

“The closest thing – and it’s not really in the same ballpark – is resettling tens of thousands of Syrian refugees,” he said.

He said open work permits of the type on offer were “coveted”.

“The idea of opening these up to an entire swathe of people because they happen to come from one place, because of their nationality, is pretty remarkable,” Rosenberg said. “Open work permits mean you can take any job. You don’t even need prearranged employment. We’re telling people, ‘you should come’ … it’s extremely generous.”

A ‘lifeboat’ with pragmatic purpose

The unfolding situation in Hong Kong, triggered by massive protests in 2019 and the introduction of the national security law last year, echoes the tensions during the post-Tiananmen run-up to the 1997 handover, when tens of thousands of Hongkongers immigrated to Canada.

They forged unique diaspora societies on either side of the Pacific – and a vast community of transnationals who shift back and forth.

More than 44,000 Hongkongers moved to Canada in 1994 at the peak of the influx, according to Canadian government data – but the flow later reversed dramatically, as newly minted Canadian citizens returned to Hong Kong en masse. Some 300,000 Canadian citizens now live in Hong Kong, while about 200,000 Hong Kong-born people live in Canada.

While many dual nationals have, in turn, headed back to Canada in recent years, and some visitor visa applications have spiked, the flow of new immigrants from Hong Kong has remained a relative trickle – exactly 1,000 Hong Kong people were admitted as new Canadian permanent residents in 2020 amid the global pandemic, down from 1,540 in 2019, according to government data.

Supporters of the Hong Kong protest movement stage a rally in Vancouver, British Columbia on September 29, 2019. Photo: Reuters
Supporters of the Hong Kong protest movement stage a rally in Vancouver, British Columbia on September 29, 2019. Photo: Reuters

On its own, the new open work permit scheme cannot duplicate the scale of the pre-handover dynamic. But it still holds the potential to kick-start a new wave of Hong Kong immigration to Canada.

Harvey estimated that 20,000 recent graduates, plus family members, might apply for the scheme, out of a pool of about 200,000 Hongkongers who had graduated from their studies in the past five years. That potential pool would grow over the next two years.

The scheme does not automatically confer permanent residency, but a new pathway to that status (and citizenship thereafter) will open up to its participants later this year, Canada’s immigration department has said. Criteria would include “minimum language and education levels and one year of work experience in Canada”.

Immigration schemes for young Hongkongers have been widely advocated by international supporters of the protest movement. Hong Kong’s last governor, Chris Patten, wrote to Canada’s then-foreign minister Francois-Philippe Champagne last July, calling for “an international lifeboat scheme” for young Hongkongers.

Canada woos Hong Kong students amid China crackdown

Last week, Patten applauded Canada’s open work permit scheme as “a vital lifeline to young graduates from Hong Kong”.

However, some harbour doubts about Canada’s response, and worry that it commodifies educated Hongkongers instead of offering refuge on a simply humanitarian basis.

Cherie Wong, executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong, a group that backs the protest movement, called the programme “necessary but insufficient”. She pointed to the large majority of Hongkongers who were excluded from eligibility.

“We want something that is accessible to Hongkongers, who are not just well-educated Hongkongers who might just be after a passport just to pop over to Canada whenever they like,” she said.

She said a broader, Hong Kong-targeted humanitarian scheme was needed.

“We understand that, ‘yes, you want to capture the economic and skilled migrants’ but if you leave out the people who need help the most then it defeats the purpose,” she said.

We want to be clear: no one will be prevented from coming to Canada solely due to charges under China’s national security legislation, including those exercising their right to peaceful protest

Alexander Cohen, spokesman for Canadian Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino

Wong also worried about Hongkongers being exploited by the immigration industry.

“There’s money to be made if people are panicking and want to get away from Hong Kong as quickly as possible,” she said. “So it’s evermore important that we have good, official information that people can navigate easily.”

And she expressed concern that Canadian immigration procedures, which typically require applicants to obtain a certificate of no criminal conviction from Hong Kong police, could pose a roadblock for participants in the protest movement.

“They publicly say they won’t look at crimes that are not crimes in Canada, but rioting is a crime in Canada. So is illegal assembly. So there are still a lot of questions around that,” Wong said.

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Alexander Cohen, the press secretary for Immigration Minister Mendicino, sought to allay those fears.

“A certificate of no criminal conviction may be requested during the open work permit application process, but we want to be clear: no one will be prevented from coming to Canada solely due to charges under China’s national security legislation, including those exercising their right to peaceful protest,” he said.

“[Canada] shares the grave concerns of the international community over the national security legislation,” Cohen added. “We strongly support the right to peaceful protest, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, and taking part in these is never an offence under Canadian law.”

But while Mendicino has similarly depicted the open work permit scheme as showing international alliance with Hong Kong’s protest movement, it can also be seen as a competitive measure.

On January 31, Britain opened applications for a new visa which allows British National (Overseas) passport holders and their dependents to live and work in the country. Millions of Hongkongers are eligible.

Australia, meanwhile, has said it would extend existing visas held by Hongkongers by up to five years.

“Acquiring skilled workers is a priority in Canadian immigration policy,” said University of British Columbia geography professor David Ley, who has for decades studied immigration flows, including the pre-handover Hong Kong influx and more recent arrival of wealthy mainland Chinese.

Canada, Australia draw Hongkongers keen to leave

The scheme therefore met that pragmatic imperative, while giving the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “an easy and fairly painless” way to satisfy calls to be tough with Beijing, Ley said.

“So we can make this point that we are a democratic and humanitarian society,” while at the same time reviving an immigration scene rendered moribund by the Covid-19 pandemic, he said. (Applicants to the scheme will have to comply with Canada’s Covid-19 travel restrictions that include a negative test for the virus and a 14-day quarantine plan.)

Not all Canadian immigration stories ended in success, said Ley, as an influx of Chinese engineering and IT workers in the early 2000s had faced substantial problems due to language issues and a lack of recognition of their credentials.

Immigration lawyer Jean-Francois Harvey, the Hong Kong-based founder and managing partner of the Harvey Law Group. Photo: SCMP
Immigration lawyer Jean-Francois Harvey, the Hong Kong-based founder and managing partner of the Harvey Law Group. Photo: SCMP

But if a new influx from Hong Kong had better English skills and “reputable” qualifications, and support from diaspora communities in Vancouver and Toronto in particular, “that adds up to quite a positive scenario”, Ley said. “I would be quite optimistic that young people could make it work.”

Ley said that it would take some time to determine whether there would be a rush for the open work permit and other schemes. The pre-handover exodus involved many people who were “in some ways caught up in a contagion” to establish an escape route from Hong Kong.

“In some cases it was ‘this is just what people like us are doing right now’, and once there is a certain impetus, that creates positive feedback and a fear-of-missing-out phenomenon that is not necessarily rational,” he said.

Tens of thousands of Hongkongers return from Canada since 1996

The bigger question, he said, was the fate of the 300,000 people in Hong Kong who already held Canadian citizenship, and whether China or the Special Administrative Region government might somehow restrict outflows. Neither of those were considerations during the pre-handover exodus.

“Even without these new factors [of political pressure], staying ‘here’ or ‘there’ has always been in fine balance,” said Ley.

Rosenberg, whose firm was heavily involved in Hong Kong-Canada immigration in the 1990s, has yet to see any surge of inquiries about the new scheme. “But we’ve let our corporate clients know that if they are looking to do any international recruitment, then Hong Kong right now is low-hanging fruit,” he said.

Harvey, meanwhile, said the new scheme was a “pretty simple thing”, and he did not anticipate many applicants needing lawyers to help them navigate it.

Nevertheless, his firm had already fielded calls from students asking about future eligibility.

“I’ve talked to a lot of consultants in Hong Kong and personally I think this is going to be huge,” said Harvey. “We are talking about a lot of young talent. That might be a great thing for Canada. Maybe not so great for Hong Kong.”

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