Local companies sound emigration alarm to Hong Kong government

March 14, 2022 10:20
Photo: Bloomberg

For months, foreign businesses have been asking the government to ease its quarantine restrictions and open the city to the outside world. Now the local business community has added its voice.

Earlier this month the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce (HKGCC) issued a survey of 220 company representatives out of its 4,000 members conducted in January.

Of those interviewed, 24 per cent said that emigration was having a “medium” effect on their businesses, 12 per cent said it was “high” and two per cent said “very high”. In February this year, Hong Kong had a net loss of 65,295 citizens, the highest monthly figure for at least 12 months.

“Hong Kong is a service, knowledge-intensive economy,” said Peter Wong, the council chairman. “Human resources are very important. If we cannot stop this flight of talent, the situation will make us worry. Hiring replacements and training them puts up costs.”

Of those leaving, 56 per cent are medium-level management and 19 per cent high-level management. Asked why they were emigrating, 57 per cent said they wanted better education for their children, 45 per cent cited politics and 27 per cent wanted a better living environment.

They are not leaving because they earn too little, so higher salaries will not stem the flow. The Chamber said that emigration affected every sector, including engineering, finance and accounting and IT.

These are different factors to those persuading foreigners to leave.

“I am leaving because of the quarantine rules and the possibility that I may be separated from my three children,” said Australian Andrea Smith as she brought her dog to see a vet. “That is something we could not accept. So I will take the children to our home in Australia. My dog and my husband will remain here. He has a good job and a good salary. Moving pets is more complicated than moving people.”

Hong Kong’s quarantine rules, among the strictest in the world, have persuaded many foreigners to leave. They have made it impossible for them to have the contact they want with their families, friends and colleagues in other countries and to run an Asia-Pacific operation out of Hong Kong.

Other factors pushing them out are the strict social distancing rules, suspension of schools and confusion over mass testing and lockdowns.

Allan Zeman is one of the most prominent foreign businessmen here and the father of Lan Kwai Fong. “The amount of people leaving is scary,” he said. “I have never seen it. Hong Kong’s success was always built on its people and a skilled workforce. If we keep the borders closed, Hong Kong won’t be Hong Kong.”

Foreigners compare Hong Kong to Singapore and most countries in the West which have chosen to “live with the virus”, instead of aiming for “zero-Covid”. They consider the latter unattainable and criticise the Hong Kong government for not providing a timetable to end the current restrictions.

Richard Leung, a business consultant, said that Hong Kong officials seemed to have no policy of their own and were following the scripts given to them by Beijing.

“This has worsened with the recent serious Omicron outbreak. The central government is very angry with Carrie Lam and her administration. This central control is becoming more evident. So what is the point of submitting reports and papers to the SAR government when it can decide nothing on its own?” he said.

Emigration remains a difficult and complex decision.

Mary Wong, a translator, left with her husband for Vancouver earlier this month. “I am leaving because of politics,” she said in an interview before their departure. “I supported the protest movement and do not like the path the city is taking. It is becoming like a mainland city.”

But her husband David, a photographer, was not so sure. “I would prefer to stay here two-three more years. I do not know how much work I will be able to find in Vancouver. The winters there are very long and the life is boring compared to Hong Kong. We will live in the urban area but it is a 15-minute walk to the Skytrain, the main form of public transport.” It has 53 stations over 79.6 kilometres of track.

On the other side of the river, the grass may not be as green as it looks from here.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.