Henry Leung is 36, university-educated and lives alone in the 70-square-meter apartment in Tsimshatsui he inherited from his parents. Despite a fine education, he cannot find a good job; he earns a living by helping a friend to import incense sticks to sell to temples and retailers.
“The physical and political environment in Hong Kong is deteriorating,” he said. “The influence of Beijing and mainland people increases each year. If I sell my apartment, I would have enough to qualify as an investor migrant in Taiwan. It is a country where I feel very comfortable.”
Leung is not alone. Last year over 600 Hong Kong people emigrated to Taiwan, compared to an annual average of 200 over the last decade. Last year a record 950,000 Hong Kong people visited Taiwan, double the figure of 2006. A survey published in May by Hong Kong University found 53 percent of local citizens had a good feeling toward Taiwan people, second only to Singaporeans with 59 percent and compared to a score of minus 15 toward mainlanders.
As the flood of mainland visitors and migrants increases, so does a sense of affinity with Taiwan grows among a large segment of the population.
Traditionally, Hong Kongers have migrated to the West, to escape the political instability of China and Communist rule. In the first half of 2013, 3,900 people emigrated: the U.S. and Australia were the top choices, each attracting 1,000, followed by Canada with 600. Migration to Taiwan peaked at 1,100 in 1994 and 1,200 in 1995, before falling to an average of 200.
Taiwan’s bar for an investment immigrant is low for a developed economy, which is why a middle-class person like Leung with modest assets can qualify. The migrant must deposit at least NT$5 million (US$170,000) in a Taiwan bank; after one year, he can apply for a residence permit. In the second and third year, he must not leave the island for a total of 30 days; if he is a man aged less than 36, he must do military service.
There are other channels for Hong Kong people. Students who graduate from Taiwan universities can obtain a work permit if they find a job paying at least NT$37,000 a month. After living on the island for seven years, they can apply for permanent residence. These are mostly graduates in computers, IT, finance, international trade and other sectors in which demand for qualified people in Taiwan is strong.
Or they can invest at least NT$300,000 in a company which employs them for a year; if its revenue reaches NT$3 million in that period, they can extend for a second year.
The minimum for an investor immigrant is significantly lower than that of other countries, including Portugal, Canada, UK and Australia. In addition, it is a Chinese society to which Hong Kong people can adapt easily; learning to live in a western country is a major challenge, especially for those over 40 and without knowledge of the new language.
The price of property is another attraction, especially outside the urban area of Taipei where prices for residential and commercial property are most expensive. Commercial rents in New Taipei, Yilan, Tainan and other cities in the center and south are a half those in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong migrants can open coffee shops, restaurants, bed and breakfast joints or other small business in these locations. For retired people, Taiwan is also an attractive option – cheaper housing, a lower cost of living and 70 minutes by air to family and friends in Hong Kong. The island provides universal medical insurance to its citizens.
The migrants give several reasons for moving – the ‘mainlandisation’ of Hong Kong, with the rising number of mainland migrants, the flood of tourists and increasing influence of Beijing and its representatives over public policy: a rise in property prices that will continue with the inflow of mainland money: a slower, more human pace of life in Taiwan: a vibrant civil society with many cultural activities: warmer human relations: a free media and democratic system, under which officials from president to county chief are elected by popular vote.
For its part, the Taiwan government welcomes Hong Kong migrants who are educated, qualified and bring investment. It considers those born and educated in Hong Kong as ‘untainted’ by Communism and sharing the values and lifestyle of its own people.
It wants ‘quality’ migrants; it does not allow blue-class workers from Thailand, Indonesia and other countries in southeast Asia to remain after the end of their contracts.
The major downside of Taiwan is that Beijing wants to take it over, by force if necessary. A war is unlikely but the island’s long-term political future remains unresolved. It means that while Taiwan will attract an increasing number of migrants from Hong Kong, the traditional western countries will remain the first choice for many emigrants.
Mark O’Neill, a Hong Kong-based journalist and author, writes on Greater China. He has worked as a correspondent for the South China Morning Post in Beijing and Shanghai.