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Hong Kong's Expats Empty Out
As repression grows, the exodus increases
By: Tim Hamlett
I first met Ken (a pseudonym) some 20 years ago, when he was a student and I was still a full-time professor. Music brought us together. We traveled with the band to gigs and competitions outside Hong Kong. I played at his wedding.
Meanwhile, he graduated and secured a slot in the officer training entry to one of the Hong Kong government's uniformed departments. He became an official and married a similarly fortunate lady who was a police officer. They have two children. It seemed Ken was living the Hong Kong dream: a secure government job – the iron rice bowl – with generous fringe benefits, for meaningful work. Last year, he stunned his friends by announcing that the couple were both resigning and moving to the UK. They left in November.
This has become an everyday story in Hong Kong as National Security legislation passed last year has made it clear that the territory is no place for those lacking the necessary enthusiasm for pro-China patriotism and regimentation. Last year, the government admitted that the population was shrinking at a rate of about 90,000 a year. In response to this data, an official release said that “the figures should not be interpreted as an increasing trend of people moving overseas.” Unofficial calculations put the number of people leaving for good at about 1,000 a day, partly off-set by new arrivals, returnees, etc.
And there were plenty of other figures pointing in the same direction. In August last year, the Hospital Authority said its workforce had shrunk by 4.9 percent of doctors and 6.7 percent for nurses. The School Principals' association released a survey at the end of November revealing that 1,000 teachers had quit the profession in the last year. It also reported a leap in the number of principals retiring early.
Fortunately, perhaps, this exodus was accompanied by a drastic drop in the number of students. The number of Primary One classes dropped by 64 when the new school year started. Some schools had lost 15 percent of their pupils over the summer break. Education consultants, used to foraging for places in preferred schools, reported that such schools were calling them with offers of vacancies.
The emigration trend is particularly marked among families with young children. Parents with no political interests could stomach the revamped election system which rules out of contention anyone not trusted by Beijing's local Liaison Office. They are put off by the government's ongoing education “reforms,” intended to instil patriotism and love of law and order.
What this means in practice is compulsory flag-raising ceremonies with foot drill – even in kindergartens – frequent playing of the national anthem, and lessons at all levels in the delights of the new national security law. The old Liberal Studies subject, dedicated to fostering independent thought, has been renamed “civic education” and modified accordingly. Parents familiar with the less lovely parts of the Chinese Communist Party's history fear their children will be brainwashed.
Most observers feel that the migration wave has not yet peaked. In response to repression in Hong Kong, the British government unveiled a scheme for migrants to move to the UK and stay for five years with a path to citizenship. This extends to anyone born under British colonial rule, which could cover more than 3 million Hongkongers born before 1997. Some British MPs would like to extend it to youngsters fearing political persecution.
Canada and Australia have tweaked their immigration rules to make it easier for Hongkongers to move. Taiwan is also a popular destination.
How much mobility is being depressed by Covid restrictions is another question. The Hong Kong Free Press recently reported that the drastic cutback in international flights was making it difficult to transport family pets to migration countries. Some families chartered private jets at a cost of HK$150,000 so that they could travel with their four-legged friends.
Still, for the time being, Hong Kong has been comparatively free from both irksome restrictions and rampant infections. If these subside in other places or arrive in Hong Kong, some calculations will certainly change.
What this all means for the future depends on who you talk to. Officially, there is no problem, and if people are emigrating they will come back when they discover how horrible other countries are. Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that she “did not want the government to be asking citizens to stay in the city,” a prudent line since so many of the government's leading figures have family connections in desirable immigration destinations, including Mrs Lam herself.
More surreptitiously, pro-government politicians say that the exodus is a welcome clear-out of malcontents and troublemakers, who can easily be replaced. The contrary view was expressed by a South China Morning Post columnist who lamented that “the flower of Hong Kong” were leaving. They are presumably taking a good deal of money with them, although estimates vary widely. Withdrawals from the government's compulsory saving scheme on the ground of permanent departure shot up from a usual quarterly figure of about HK$1 billion to HK$2.6 billion in the third quarter of last year.
This may be an underestimate. There were reports last year that emigrants through the UK government's scheme were having difficulty extracting their money.
An immediate prospect is perhaps a dearth of people with particularly mobile qualifications. Along with school principals, teachers, doctors and nurses there are also complaints of shortages of airline pilots and bankers.
A more important question, perhaps, is what are the prospects for those who go. Hong Kong's pro-government media have run a nice line in horror stories about the climate, racism and economic decay of western countries.
Western media have been quite up-beat about the latest migration experience. The newly arrived Hongkonger tends to be an educated, work-experienced, family-oriented person with realistic expectations and the comfortable thought that whatever ails his new home at least it has freedom. Anyone who owned a flat in Hong Kong before he left also has – thanks to the territory's astronomical property prices - a handy nest-egg.
Moving is perhaps more traumatic for the children, suddenly cut off from family members, friends and classmates. Parents can only do their best. As one father put it, explaining why he had paid through the nose to transport the family's elderly guinea pig to their new home, “You don't want them to start heart-broken.”
Tim Hamlett has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets. In 1988, he became a full-time journalism teacher. He officially retired nine years ago.