Hong Kong's Booming Migration Industry

China's crackdown sends the territory's population fleeing

By: Tim Hamlett

In a recent lunch with some of my former journalism students, the conversation swiftly turned to emigration. It transpired that half of the people around the table had already started the process. Others were thinking about it.

We must not generalize from small samples. But it seems that emigration has become a boom industry in the former British colony since a government crackdown on dissenting voices that began last year, and continues. According to data, in the year to May 27, a net 92,160 people left Hong Kong by air. Some of that may have been related to Covid-19 restrictions but it is quite significant at a time when travel is so difficult

The easiest destination is the UK itself, which felt obliged to respond to what it sees as a breach in the handover agreement that Hong Kong would retain its traditional freedoms under Chinese rule. Hongkongers who hold – or are eligible for – a British National Overseas Passport, previously just a travel document conferring no right to live in the UK, now have a right to stay for five years and apply for citizenship. As this effectively covers anyone who had the right to live in Hong Kong before the handover - and their family members - this offer could potentially turn out to be very generous.

The British government estimates that 300,000 people will migrate under the scheme in the next five years. Other people’s estimates run to seven figures. Do that many people wish to leave? Alas, it appears they do. It is not so much the politics as the crackdown on civil society and the efforts to “reform” the law and education. Parents of young children are particularly put off by the thought of “patriotic education,” which is supposed to start in kindergarten and run right through the system.

In the school-leaving examinations, taken at 17, the Liberal Studies subject - a homage to independent study and critical thinking - has been replaced by Citizenship and Social Development, with a new curriculum stressing “patriotic” values. Officially nothing is happening. This will not cut much ice with Hongkongers old enough to remember the 1997 handover. In the five years before this event, we were assured that nobody was leaving; in the five years after, we were told that many of the people who had not left were now coming back.

It is true, though, that actually moving is difficult now because of the restrictions on travel caused by Covid-19. Cargo space is a particular problem. But the evidence of a widespread wish to go and numerous people making preparations is irresistible. A poll conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong reported that 43 percent of the population wished to emigrate if they could. A survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Project found 21 percent were actively planning to go. Applications for Certificates of No Criminal Conviction, required by many destination countries, increased by 13 percent in the first quarter of this year alone.

There is now a long wait, possibly due to simple overloading of the Police office which issues them, possibly to something worse. Applications from people wishing to withdraw their holdings in the government’s compulsory savings scheme - the Mandatory Provident Fund - were reportedly up 72 percent by September last year. Two teachers’ unions reported increases in the number of pupils dropping out of the local education system. The Professional Teachers Union said the increase was “alarming.” The Education Bureau said the number fluctuates.

All this is good news for some people. A specialized relocation outfit, Spaceship, reports that it is receiving 100 inquiries a day. A small Irish investment company set up an office in Hong Kong in 2019 expecting to sell real estate. They have now relocated 50 families. Other real estate sellers report a major switch from buying overseas property as an investment to buying such property as a future home.

For Hongkongers who own a flat which can be launched onto the inflated local market, investment offers a wide range of emigration choices. The US requires US$7 million, but other popular destinations are more accommodating. Canada requires between C$600,000 and C$1 million, depending on where you go and some other circumstances. Australia offers an investor visa for those putting Aus$1.5 million on the table. Ireland is attracting a lot of attention - English speaking, in EU - and requires €1 million.

Another tempting alternative is Portugal, which is not only cheap – property investment of €500,000 suffices, with a discount if the property needs refurbishment – but also notably relaxed about whether the investor actually lives there very much. For those who can’t afford the investment channel, the UK scheme is easiest. It involves some government fees and charges of about £7,000 a head over five years, with discounts for couples and a lower rate for children.

Most of this pays for access to the National Health Service. Applicants must also show enough means to support themselves for six months. The UK government is setting up a network of advice centers to help new arrivals with jobs, accommodation, and schools.

What does all this mean for Hong Kong? Financially, quite a lot. The Bank of America estimates that migrants taking their assets with them will produce an outflow of about US$588 billion in five years. This is roughly what the Hong Kong government takes in from all sources in a year. In this particular five years, the government expects to run a deficit but it has plentiful reserves.

A more serious worry is the loss of a particularly enterprising and dynamic section of the population. During much of the colonial era, and particularly during the time of the “touch base” policy between 1974 and 1981, getting into Hong Kong from China as a refugee was demanding and difficult. It involved dodging the best efforts of two governments to suppress the flow and those who succeeded were unusually restless, resourceful, and determined.

This process will now be reversed. The restless and resourceful will leave. The numbers as such are not a problem. Immigration from the mainland will fill the gaps. But it seems doubtful that the resulting new Hong Kong will be as lively, innovative, and interesting as the old one was.

Tim Hamlett has been a Hong Kong resident and journalist since 1980. In 1988, he became a full-time journalism teacher and has since retired. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel

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