Hong Kong’s New Migration Wave

Apparently driven by a combination of business opportunity elsewhere, high property prices, political friction and an irritating influx of mainland Chinese, Hong Kong is experiencing its second wave of immigration after the runup to the 1997 handover.

A total of 3,900 emigrants were listed by Hong Kong’s Security Bureau between January and July this year, up 8.3 percent annually. But while the traditional destinations have been Canada, New Zealand and Australia, Taiwan now has become a magnet, at least according to the latest statistics by Taiwan’s National Immigration Agency (NIA). Some 632 applications for residency from Hong Kong residents were filed in September alone, a sixfold-plus increase from a previous monthly average of 100.

“The reason for the rapid growth of immigration is unclear. We distributed the residence permits under due process,” an NIA official told local media.

When Hong Kongers emigrated to Taiwan before the city’s handover from Britain to China in 1997, the Taiwanese tended to regard them as “people fleeing the long arm of the British colonial law” – triad members on the run. And since 1997 the number of immigrants from Hong Kong has been low, although with a mild pickup occurring in the first half of this year, with applications for residency reaching 1,598 through August.

Hong Kong’s per-capita GDP is much higher than Taiwan’s by purchasing power parity, at US$52,300 compared to US$39,300, leading the island’s media to jump to the conclusion the reasons for the exodus were political. “A call by Hong Kong activists to ‘evacuate to Taiwan’ appears to have hit a nerve,” wrote the English-language Taipei Times, referring to a Facebook campaign initiated by Hong Kong youth in response to the move by the CY Leung government to grant television broadcast licenses to tycoon-controlled networks.

However, the continuing political friction, including that between Hong Kong and the mainland, is hardly the story. Instead, a major factor for the Taiwan-bound wave is discernible when looking at regulations promulgated by the NIA and the Investment Commission under the Ministry of Economic Affairs.

Hong Kong residents can become “investment immigrants,” under the strikingly simple regulations. It can be done by buying shares worth NT$5 million (US$169,000) in a given Taiwanese company; establishing a proprietary business or partnership in Taiwan with the same investment amount; or lending the NT$5 million to a Taiwanese business for a year.

If that is still too onerous, there even is an easier and virtually risk-free way. Hong Kongers can simply deposit NT$5 million into a regular Taiwanese bank account and then wait a year before obtaining the right to a residency application.

After holding an Alien Resident Card for five consecutive years, the immigrant can then apply for an Alien Permanent Resident Certificate, effectively meaning life-long right of residency regardless of job or investment.

Needless to say, the NT$5 million entrance fee wouldn’t get would-be émigrés anywhere if they were up to buy a property in Hong Kong.

“It is so astonishingly simple; if Hong Kongers want to emigrate to Australia, for example, it takes either an investment of A$1.5 million (US$1.4 million) or A$5 million, with the latter one being far easier,” says Paul Bernadou, a Hong Kong migration consultant.

The A$1,5 million would have to be invested in an Australian government bond, and the applicant has to prove that the funds were generated in his or her regular skill set, “which actually is quite difficult to do.” The A$5 million scheme is more straightforward, Bernadou says, as the applicant basically only has to prove that the funds have no criminal source. He or she can then invest in a government bond or managed funds listed on stock exchange or a mixture.

Bernadou points out that he has never once had an enquiry from anyone in Hong Kong about moving to Taiwan. He acknowledges, however, that the ease Hong with which Hong Kong residents can migrate to the island makes it highly unlikely that they would want to pay for migration consultant services in the first place.

Human resource consultants in Taipei say most of the investment immigrants from Hong Kong head for the hospitality and services industries, which “Hong Kong Chinese are very strong in,” as one of them put it. Since last year, local travel businesses have been complaining that Hong Kong investors are making the most money out of the ongoing mainland tourism bonanza on the island. According to a Taiwanese academic in the tourism field who spoke on condition of anonymity, “of the US$60 that mainland tourists on average burn per day during their Taiwan trip, the Taiwanese lose on average a staggering 50% to Hong Kong intermediaries.”

In other service sectors the hard-charging Hong Kong migrants’ resourcefulness obviously pays off in relatively laid-back Taiwan. In what can be taken as the stereotype of a Hong Kong-Taipei rags-to-riches story, migrant Sam Lee at the earliest onset of the K-Pop wave in 2005, without funds worth mentioning opened Korean language school VTK, which with well over 1,000 students is now by far the biggest such school on the island.

While many of Lee’s local competitors failed even though K-Pop and K-TV dramas became mainstream later because they initially rented places that were too big so that they couldn’t be filled with students at once, Lee found an office complex where rooms could be rented one-by-one and that on very short notice according to demand, therefore keeping the initial investment extremely low.

“I could have never pulled that off in Hong Kong,” Lee says. “There the rent is too high and regulatory requirements are too cumbersome.”

He confirms that there is an increased interest in Taiwan among Hong Kongers thinking about migration. In recent months he has received phone calls from Hong Kong friends whose friends want to talk with him “about the Taiwan thing”, Lee says.