Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 12 July 2021


Hong Kong’s Exodus Is Real and Painful

The migration is accelerating and will likely be permanent. Officials and businesses are wrong to downplay the impact on a hub fast losing financial and global appeal.

What happens when Covid travel restrictions come down?
What happens when Covid travel restrictions come down? Photograph: Bloomberg

Casual conversations in Hong Kong these days turn quickly to departures: Where to go, how to find work or school places. Subway station advertisements tout developments in London commuter towns. Thousands of the territory’s 7.5 million people, faced with the reality of Beijing’s rapidly tightening grip, have already left for new lives elsewhere. Many thousands more will likely follow as pandemic restrictions lift — not just a handful of young activists, but average families, galvanized by child arrests and the advent of a pro-China school curriculum.

Their flight and absence will leave the city changed.

It’s hard to measure the scale of the exodus. There aren’t enough timely statistics and Covid-19 travel barriers remain in place, affecting migration decisions. But surveys, anecdotal evidence and proxy measures suggest there is already a steady flow. As I completed my own bureaucratic departure formalities last month, I found knots of young Hong Kongers, often couples, filling in the same forms. At the Covid-haunted airport the morning I left, there was a sharp contrast between row upon row of echoing, empty check-in lanes and the scramble of families around the Air Canada counters. At other times, by all accounts, it’s the London check-ins that throng with trolleys piled high with suitcases as more people take advantage of the British National (Overseas) immigration program that attempts to right historical wrongs by offering sanctuary and a path to citizenship for more than 5 million of the former colony’s residents.

Hong Kong has, of course, been molded over centuries by consecutive waves of departures and arrivals. In the decade before the 1997 handover to China, some half a million people left, and most went to Canada — allowing many of those at the airport now to travel back as citizens. The emigration rate peaked in the years after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, at around 1% of the population annually.

This looks more dramatic. Last year, even in the throes of a pandemic, more than 10,800 Hong Kongers received resident permits for Taiwan alone, nearly double the 2019 figure. In the two months after applications opened for BNO visas at the end of January this year, 34,300 applied, 20,600 of those doing so from outside the U.K. Official estimates cited in evidence to a parliamentary committee there put the expected BNO figure for the full year at around 120,000 — closing in on twice Hong Kong’s total yearly departures in the early 1990s. It’s a trend backed up by everything from pension withdrawals to the rise in applications for criminal record checks, required for a number of migration programs.

Checking Out

Applications for criminal record checks, a requirement for many migration programs, are back up after a dip at the peak of the pandemic

Source: Hong Kong Police Force data, Bloomberg News

China isn’t blind to the issue. Pro-Beijing commentators have fallen over themselves to provide grim warnings of the racism that awaits migrants in the West and, according to one particularly hysterical comment, the “horrors of taxes and social justice.” Legislation has been introduced that gives the local government the power to ban exits, should it wish to, as mainland China can. Officials are also hampering the efforts of those who left with BNO passports to claim their pension savings. None of that suggests that mass migration is seen as just a useful way to be rid of insufficiently loyal citizens.

Yet virtually nothing has been done to encourage families to stay on. Officials know well how sensitive schooling is for Hong Kongers, but pressed ahead with accelerated plans to introduce patriotic education, which will teach even the very youngest students the offenses under a wide-ranging national security law introduced last year. Sending a U.S. lawyer to jail earlier this month after he got caught in a scuffle with a policeman during 2019’s street protests — the man said he was protecting passersby being attacked with a baton — was another avoidable twist for a city trying to revive its brand at home and abroad. Political aims trump the rest.

Pension Pots

Withdrawals from the Mandatory Provident Fund due to departure increased after the introduction of the National Security Law

Source: Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Authority Data

The government’s response to questions in the face of mounting evidence of an exodus has been twofold. First, officials argue that migrant numbers are unlikely to be anywhere near the top-end of wide-ranging British estimates — more than a million for the U.K. alone over five years — and that while Hong Kongers may leave now, they will return. After the flight of the 1980s and 1990s as the handover approached, tens of thousands did come back, many creating so-called “astronaut” families split between two places. Yet there’s no reason to think that will happen again. For one, people four decades ago were leaving over concerns events might take a turn for the worse — but much of what they feared has come to pass. There’s also little indication that China will welcome back those who left with BNO passports, no longer officially recognized by Beijing and Hong Kong as travel or identification documents. 

Second, authorities say that it doesn’t matter anyway. Enough residents will stay, mainlanders will arrive, and Beijing doesn’t need Hong Kong the way it did in the 1980s. This is true to a point. But it denotes a Hong Kong that is no longer a bridge between two worlds, or indeed a financial metropolis with a global mindset — it’s a Chinese one, being emptied of its young, homegrown talent, and aging even faster than it already was. This suggests the most monocultural environment Hong Kong has ever known. Bright mainland graduates may well choose to go elsewhere. Expatriates, a leading indicator of openness and economic growth, may not be leaving in droves — but already far fewer are arriving

It’s not outright destruction that lies ahead. What the future holds, as information controls tighten and judicial independence is trampled, is a hollowing out of Hong Kong that businesses and officials dismiss at their peril. 

Opinion. Data. More Data.
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Financial hubs have hit trouble before, of course. As David Skilling of the economic advisory firm Landfall Strategy Group pointed out to me, Dubai saw dramatic departures and outflows during the ructions that followed the 2008 crisis. Those were primarily financial woes, but the government responded with a concerted effort to restore the status upon which the emirate depends. There’s little desire to apply those lessons here. The city is losing its gravitational pull, crucial even if it’s destined to integrate more closely with China.

Beijing will always put political needs ahead of reputation and softer concerns. Emptying out Hong Kong still means accepting a significant opportunity cost as a generation departs — and the creation of a larger, and potentially noisier, diaspora. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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