Does this emigration exceed that of pre-1997?

October 24, 2022 10:14
Photo: Reuters

In the last two years, about 60,000 Protestants in Hong Kong have emigrated, 20 per cent of the total community in the city. Some churches have lost half of their congregations to emigration and the effects of Covid.

These startling figures were revealed in the latest issue of Christian Times, making the exodus of the faithful greater than that before the handover in 1997.

George Yeo, former Foreign Minister of Singapore, said that Hong Kong would no longer be the international city of the past. “But it will be an international city for China.”

It feels like a turning point. In his Policy Speech last week, the Chief Executive did not – and could not -- resolve the two main factors driving emigration. For Chinese, it is the National Security Law; for foreigners, it is Covid restrictions.

Earlier this month, the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management released a survey conducted in August and September that showed 37 per cent of management-level employees and 24 per cent of grassroots workers had resigned in order to emigrate. Worst hit were the high-tech and digital sectors.

Vice-president Luk Kwok-Kwan said that other countries, including Singapore and Malaysia, were aggressively recruiting talented people. “As quickly as possible, we must make public a blueprint for ending quarantine restrictions. Otherwise, it will be difficult to attract foreigners to come here to work,” he said.

In March, Christian Brun, founder and chief executive of Wellesley Partners, moved to Singapore after having been based in Hong Kong since 2005. Wellesley is an independent executive search firm, with 70 professionals in five offices in the Asia Pacific.

“Recently, foreigners are returning to Asia,” he said. “The vast majority are choosing Singapore, not Hong Kong. In the first half of this year, the number of Employment Pass (EP) holders in Singapore reached 168,800, an increase of 7,100 over the end of 2021 and about 87 per cent of the level at the end of 2019.” The EP allows foreign professionals, managers and executives to work in Singapore. They must earn at least US$5,000 a month.

“People’s willingness to return to Hong Kong is low,” said Brun. “Quarantine restrictions are gradually being lowered, but overall economic and local political factors are unfavourable, as well as tensions between China and the U.S. The West is increasing its investment in Southeast Asia.”

Other discouraging factors are the unclear supervisory environment for the high-tech, education and property sectors in the mainland, which is increasing the risk for private equity in China, he added.

One major factor driving emigration is the open door extended by Britain to holders of BNO passports. Last Tuesday, the UK government opened the door even wider, when Jesse Norman, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, said that a law would come into effect in November to allow Hong Kong people born on or after July 1, 1997 who have at least one parent with BNO status to apply independently to settle.

The UK government has so far approved 130,000 applications.

According to a British Home Office study, the largest group of BNO visa holders are aged 35-44, followed by those in the 45-54 age bracket. A total of 60 per cent of them have one or more children, with the majority of the children under 15.

David Robinson, a Britain who works in finance and has lived in Hong Kong for 30 years, said: “In my time, Hong Kong has changed several times. It is changing again. The new one will attract foreigners because it will provide opportunities, high salaries, low taxes and a lifestyle they do not enjoy at home. They do not know the Hong Kong of the past.”

James Lee, a university lecturer, said that the salaries paid by Hong Kong universities were among the highest in the world. “Add that to the low taxes and you have a high disposable income. Hong Kong will continue to attract young academics at the start of their careers.

“But I am not so sure about academics in mid-career. Do they want to spend many years of their life and raise a family here? The changes since 2019 have made the city less attractive to such people,” he said.

Jean Leblanc, a French teacher, said that Hong Kong needed a substantial public relations job to improve its image. “In the West, when you mention Hong Kong, people think of long quarantine times in airports and hotels. 0 & 3 could become 0 & 7 or 0 & 10. I returned to Europe several times during the last three years and quarantined here for weeks. It was unbearable.”

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.