Is Hong Kong’s elite leaving?

August 12, 2021 06:00
Photo: HKEJ

As Hong Kong people watch tearful farewells at the airport and Youtube videos of their neighbours moving into new homes in Reading and Manchester, they ask: “is the city’s elite leaving?”

The available data does not give a clear answer. According to Hong Kong government figures, there was a net outflow of 39,800 people from the city in 2020, after a net inflow for the previous nine years.

In the 12 months since the National Security Law (NSL) was enacted on June 30, 2020, there has been a net outflow of over 100,000, 1.4 per cent of the population. In the same period, more than 2,000 people applied each month for a “no criminal record” document, a pre-condition for an immigrant visa, with 3,924 in May this year, the highest for three years.

A survey last month by UKHK, a British organisation that helps migrants, of 1,012 people who had migrated or planned to found that 75 per cent were between 30 and 49 and 63.5 per cent were taking their children, of whom nearly 60 per cent were in primary school.

Education Bureau figures show that, as of October 2020, 690,965 students were enrolled in primary and secondary schools, a drop of more than 15,000 from a year earlier.

These figures give us only a partial picture. Many parents are leaving because they do not want their children to receive the “patriotic education” the NSL stipulates. Or they may not want them to receive the “stuffed duck” education of Hong Kong, where passing exams is paramount. International schools here that offer a more liberal curriculum are extremely expensive.

If their children enroll in a state school in Britain, Australia or Canada, they receive the more liberal form, free of charge – but their writing and reading of Chinese will certainly suffer, making it more difficult to return.

David Leung, 52, a secondary school teacher with more than 25 years of experience, said that last summer he decided to take early retirement eight years early, even though it meant a substantial loss in income.

“As an international financial centre, Hong Kong must be open, with human rights, common law and freedom of news,” he said. “We must have national security too with restrictions on freedom of speech, but the NSL is too much.

“People are censoring themselves and becoming increasingly fearful. The biggest problem is that no-one knows what the red lines are. How can you teach history or current affairs in this climate?” he said. He is moving to Britain with his wife and children.

Education is one of the sectors hardest hit by emigration, together with journalism and political activism.

But the data is not clear for other sectors, like medicine, finance, securities, tourism, logistics, property, manufacturing, IT and professional services such as law, accounting, insurance and shipping. People in these sectors are the best paid in the city, especially those between 35 and 60.

For them, emigration would mean a substantial drop in income and a loss of personal networks. In addition, tens of thousands have a second passport already, such as the 300,000 Canadians of Hong Kong origin.

“I am unhappy with what is going on,” said Victor Wong, an author who holds a U.S. passport. “But I plan to stay since my life and family is here. I keep assets offshore and, short of a U.S.-China war, will be allowed to board a plane at the airport. Other Chinese in my situation with a foreign passport feel safe enough.”

Derek Smith, an American career trainer, said that he saw no evidence of foreign residents leaving, except for those for family reasons due to Covid.

“Foreign companies want to keep their Asia-Pacific headquarters here, for many reasons. Some have moved individuals or departments to Seoul, Tokyo or Singapore, but the main office remains here.

“Over the longer term, I see expats being replaced by Mandarin-speaking Chinese. They are cheaper and better able to operate in the Greater Bay Area. It will be the big market for Hong Kong firms over the next 10 years. The city’s domestic market is too small.

“For expats, Hong Kong will become more like Dubai or Bahrain. They will come for a good salary for a designated post for a fixed period. It will be less attractive for the young expat who is not highly skilled and is looking for adventure and a new experience,” he said. “That is one impact of all the negative coverage of the city in the western world.”

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.