Some HKers look to emigrate, but others want to stay and fight

September 19, 2019 09:00
Migration consultants have reported a sharp increase in inquiries from Hong Kong people following the months-long civil unrest in the city. Photo: Reuters

Looking around and making sure that no one was overhearing, Mary Leung (not her real name), leant forward and said softly: “With my husband, I returned to Hong Kong from the US four years ago so that our two children would learn to speak and read Chinese in school. But now, should we go back?”

After three months of protests and increasing violence, many people in Hong Kong are asking this question: should they emigrate?

Migration consultants report a sharp increase in inquiries from the public. Property companies have been holding exhibitions to offer real estate not only in Canada, UK, Australia and the US – the traditional favorites – but also Thailand, Cyprus, Dubai, Cambodia and Mauritius.

According to Quintessentially Estates, a London-based global property group, Hong Kong investors made enquiries for residential and office properties totaling 200 million pounds in August, more than double the level seen in the same month in 2018.

“People are beginning to become concerned that the climate now represents a glimpse of what Hong Kong is going to look like in the future,” said Jonathan Benarr, head of its Asia Pacific division. “Sterling is hitting record lows, making London a very attractive prospect.”

More than 20 countries offer citizenship or residency in return for investment, including several in the Caribbean and half a dozen in the European Union, including Portugal, Greece, Malta, Cyprus, Spain and Bulgaria. A “Golden Visa” in Portugal, for example, requires a property investment of at least 350,000 euros.

According to Hong Kong’s Security Bureau, about 7,600 residents emigrated in 2018, up from 6,500 in 2017 but down from 10,300 in 2006. The top three destinations for the past five years have been Australia, the US and Canada. In 2018, 1,090 Hong Kong people moved to Taiwan, and in the first three months of this year there were 297 such emigrants.

A survey published in January by the Asia-Pacific Research Institute of Chinese University found that 34 percent of Hong Kong people would emigrate if they had the opportunity, with such intention higher among the more educated. The reasons cited included political conflicts, an increasingly divided society, lack of democracy and dissatisfaction with the political system, high property and living costs, and high population density.

These figures are the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people already hold foreign passports. Among them are an estimated 300,000 Canadians, followed by Australians, British, Americans and other nationals.

They or their parents acquired these passports during previous ‘scares’ – the 1984 Joint Declaration, the 1989 Tiananmen protests, pre-1997 jitters, etc. Some have residency rights or families already settled overseas and could migrate easily.

Hong Kong has always been an immigrant city, with the majority of the population coming from China after 1949. Since then, there have been successive waves of emigration whenever the city was deemed unstable politically.

The most recent wave was in the 1980s, when China and Britain negotiated over the return of Hong Kong. At the time, professionals and civil servants left in droves, mostly to Western countries. This time closer places are favorites – Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia, especially for young families with a smaller budget to emigrate.

But emigration is no piece of cake. It means giving up good positions and promotion opportunities, family and social networks and low taxes. In the new country, the migrants are likely to take jobs below their ability and expectation; their children will not learn to read and write Chinese. The migrants will be outsiders in their new country – with a job, a house and comfortable life, yes, but not part of the mainstream.

That is what has persuaded thousands of Hongkongers to return home. After living in Vancouver, Auckland or Los Angeles, they decided life, work, food and entertainment were better at home.

So emigration is a major step, not to be taken lightly.

For some residents, the protests are having the opposite effect.

“When I saw the two million people march (in June), I felt so proud to be a Hongkonger,” said Millie Wong, a retired journalist. “People always criticized us for only caring about money and self-interest. But here were so many people walking for their ideals. I wept."

“This movement makes me want to stay here and fight for our ideals. I do not want to emigrate, although I could,” she said. “Emigration is only an option for a small minority with money, qualifications and overseas links. Everyone else must stay.”

Lee Siu-lan is an overseas Chinese born in India who went to the mainland in the 1950s and moved to Hong Kong in the late 1970s.

"This is the historic struggle for our generation. We know the nature of the Communist regime because we lived under it,” she said. “Now we must fight for Hong Kong and its future. Offer me the chance to emigrate – I will never take it.”

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.