Hong Kong brain drain 2020

June 03, 2020 09:59
Photo: Reuters

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

Lady Liberty now seems to be speaking directly to Hongkongers after the United States said it is considering welcoming immigrants from the HKSAR as a response to Beijing’s move to impose national security legislation on the territory.

For sure, many Hongkongers have been increasingly distressed over Beijing’s tightening grip on the city, especially after the National People’s Congress late last month approved a resolution to impose a national security law aimed at curbing “separatist, subversive and terrorist activities and foreign intervention” following a year of protests and violence in the city.

Mainland and SAR authorities have sought to reassure the people that the law would not undermine -- but would in fact uphold -- the “one country, two systems” principle, and that Hong Kong would continue to enjoy a high degree of autonomy.

Many Hongkongers fail to take comfort in such words, however. It’s hard to trust the authorities after pro-democracy leaders have been arrested en masse and various steps have been taken to marginalize their participation in the democratic space.

There is no better way to sum up the mood of the people than the usual opening line when friends meet over lunch: “So when are you leaving Hong Kong?” The retort, also delivered half-jokingly: “Can’t. There’s a pandemic, remember?”

Many Hongkongers began dusting off their old British National (Overseas) passports after British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab indicated that they may be offered extended visa rights – a pathway to citizenship -- if China pursued its national security plans for the territory.

Then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also raised the prospect of allowing Hongkongers "to come here and bring their entrepreneurial creativity."

Although the two nations have been raising their barriers to immigrants, the words of the two officials are a strong endorsement of the talent and desirability of Hong Kong people, who have transformed a “barren rock” into an international financial and trading hub, an economic miracle, a shining example of the best of the capitalist system.

Hong Kong people are smart and entrepreneurial. They can go anywhere and prosper. Just look at how economically vibrant are the Chinatowns in North America, Europe and Australia. That’s Hong Kong replicated overseas.

They thrive in a free society because that is where they can best fulfill their potentials. That’s why any sign of curtailment of freedom stokes their deepest fears.

After the Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4, 1989, many Hongkongers sought to live abroad for fear of Communist Party rule. The same thing happened before the 1997 handover. Many panicked and packed up for Britain, Canada and Australia to start new lives there.

The same thing appears to be happening now. Recently, several friends have asked me how is life in Canada, where I used to live in the early 1990s. I tell them that many of my friends have chosen to settle there, but they still miss home – terribly.

A year after the brain drain in 1989, Hong Kong’s economy started to pick up again as China’s open-door policy brought prosperity not only to the mainland but also to the territory. Upward mobility quickened and the property market surged in the run-up to 1997.

According to a recent survey, 37.2 percent of the local respondents considered emigrating amid Beijing’s decision to enact a national security law for Hong Kong. That’s up from 24.2 percent in March and the highest since protests over the now-withdrawn extradition bill erupted in June last year.

Immigration consultants say they are receiving lots of inquiries daily. But for the most part, immigration is just a “Plan B” in case conditions here take a turn for the worse.

The question, of course, is where do we go? Will we really find more fulfilling lives overseas? With the UK confronting the uncertainties of Brexit, the US wrestling with riots and racism, and the whole world still reeling from the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, where do we go?

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EJ Insight writer