Quarantine rules drive foreigners out of Hong Kong

January 27, 2022 06:00
Photo: Reuters/AmCham

Hong Kong’s strict quarantine rules are driving foreigners out of the city. Most affected are professionals and company managers who have close personal and business links overseas and whose job requires them to travel frequently.

In the first nine months of 2021, the government approved just over 10,000 visas for foreign professionals , down from more than 40,000 in all of 2019, according to official figures. During the past year, JPMorgan has lost 20 people of managing director-level in the city, about 10 per cent of its staff of about 200.

Last October nine of 10 members surveyed by the Asia Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association said they found it difficult to operate in the city because of the Covid policies. Half said they were considering moving staff or functions away from Hong Kong.

Some senior positions at financial institutions have remained vacant for six months or more, something that has never happened before.

The government has made opening to the mainland a priority, above opening to the rest of the world.

“The government has given no timetable for ending the restrictions,” said Richard Leung, a business consultant.

“Many say they will continue at least until after the Beijing Olympics and the Party Congress this autumn. With new variants, they could continue until 2023. Hong Kong is increasingly cut off from the world.

“How can a CEO of Asia-Pacific operations manage its companies and factories in East and Southeast Asia if he has to quarantine for three weeks after each trip?” he said.

The other cost is personal and family. Most expats on limited-term contracts have part of their lives in other countries – children in school, parents who need care, friends and colleagues who are getting married and networks they need to maintain for their future career.

Before 2020, Hong Kong was an ideal place for such people, with good air connections all over the world and available around-the-clock. It was especially good for a non-working spouse who needed to spend more time with family members and travel frequently.

An AmCham HK survey published on January reflected these concerns:
“Travel restrictions weigh heavily on sentiment about living in Hong Kong, from both a company and personal perspective. Over 40% are more likely to leave the city from a personal perspective, and over 25% of companies say they are more likely to leave Hong Kong … Only 5% of global/regional headquarters have definite plans to move their headquarters out of Hong Kong, though half are unsure. Hong Kong is seen by the majority to be competitive as a global hub, however Singapore (80%) is considered to be the biggest threat to the city given its strategic location and pro-business approach.
“There is a perception that foreign businesses are less welcome in Hong Kong than in 2020. More than half our respondents feel the Government is “unconcerned” or “dismissive” about business concerns. Over 8 in 10 businesses operations have felt the impact of the National Security Law, particularly when it comes to staff morale and loss of employees who have emigrated.

“Nearly 60% of respondents say Hong Kong’s rule of law has worsened in the last 12 months, and 23% do not feel confident in the rule of law in Hong Kong. Businesses universally feel that free access to the Internet and information platforms is important, with 51% currently satisfied with data freedom in Hong Kong; however 42% believe they may not be able to continue to have free Internet access in the future,” it saidMany pilots of Cathay Pacific have resigned and left Hong Kong because of the drop in work and pay and the restrictions. The airline is offering bonuses of up to HK$29,000 to incentivise pilots to fly into Hong Kong and stay in hotel quarantine for weeks.

Robert Smith, a management consultant, lives in Discovery Bay, a favoured location for CP pilots. “Several of my friends who are pilots have left Hong Kong. They could no longer bear the quarantine, its impact on their family and the criticisms of the government. Some wonder if a Chinese state airline will take it over.

“Asked about the flight of the expats, one of my Chinese colleagues said: ‘So what? For years, they have enjoyed excellent pay and bonuses, paid little tax and enjoyed a good life here. Firms can easily hire qualified Hong Kong and mainland Chinese staff to replace them. The government has no sympathy for them,’” Smith said.

Beijing and Shanghai have both seen a sharp fall in the number of expatriates in the decade up to 2021, said Ker Gibbs, President of AmCham in Shanghai. “In Beijing, the number fell by more than 40 per cent from 2010 to 63,000 last year. In Shanghai, the fall over the same period was by more than 20 per cent to 163,000.”

-- Contact us at [email protected]

A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.