History repeats itself. The fear of China’s political interference in Hong Kong caused by China’s takeover of Hong Kong in 1997 has resulted in a historic surge in emigration. Following the outbreak of the Anti-Extradition Bill movement and the establishment of the draconian National Security Law, this city is facing another emigration crisis brought by political uncertainty.
In only a week in February 2022, there was a net outflow of about 18000 Hong Kong residents, which is just 1000 lower than the number of emigrants in the whole year of 1986.
Unlike past emigration waves, this wave is particularly worth being alert because it is a repercussion of the fundamental destruction of Hong Kong’s political system and people’s confidence in the city’s future. Such a mass departure of Hong Kong citizens and foreign firms is causing irreversible damage to the metropolis’s prospects.
The Mass Departure of Professionals
This unprecedentedly extensive exodus of citizens is largely driven by professionals like lawyers. They are fleeing Hong Kong to escape from Hong Kong’s deteriorating political suppression.
Particularly, these professionals are attracted by countries like Australia and Canada, which have introduced appealing immigration policies to attract talents who specialise in the financial and innovative technology industries. Many of them have decided to leave Hong Kong and migrate to those countries. They also sell their property and bring along their capital when they leave Hong Kong, thus casting a shadow over its economy.
Moreover, Hong Kong has been relying on the professional sector to promote its economic growth and compete with emerging markets or main competitors like Singapore. The loss of talents could thus bring a serious blow to its economic growth.
Students are also Escaping from this Sick City
Apart from the professionals who are more skillful and financially capable of migration, the young talents are also losing confidence in the future of their homeland. Despite their immensely strong sense of local identity and active commitment to local affairs, more and more students or young people are leaving or considering leaving Hong Kong.
According to a poll, 60% of Hong Kong youngsters aged 15-30 wished to leave Hong Kong. With the significant outflow of professionals and future talents, Hong Kong is therefore losing its longstanding advantage: the abundance of industrious and talented human resources.
Pessimistic Attitude of Firms
Besides individuals, financial institutions and foreign companies are feeling more pessimistic about Hong Kong’s future. Hong Kong’s strict travel restrictions and harsh China-style Zero-COVID policies have stood in stark contrast to the West which has been loosening its Covid-19 policies and moving towards a co-existence with the notorious virus.
Such an irrational adherence to the stringent Zero-COVID rules has disrupted companies in Hong Kong from doing business with overseas firms, thus damaging the relations between foreign companies and the Hong Kong government.
The disappointment with the government is also deplorably exacerbated by the political crises. Foreign companies have lost confidence in Hong Kong’s abilities in safeguarding rule of law and creating a fair business environment.
Together with the brain drain, foreign companies are foreseeing a decline in Hong Kong’s status as an international financial hub. Some enterprises like Initium are therefore considering withdrawing their capital and business from Hong Kong or relocating their business, which further hinders Hong Kong’s economic sustainability.
The Vicious Cycle
Such a withdrawal of foreign enterprises could form a vicious cycle that accelerates the mass exodus.
While Hong Kong has an extremely stressful living environment, it is arguably a good place for work because this cosmopolitan city has always offered great employment and promotion opportunities.
Nonetheless, this advantage is gradually fading out because foreign companies are leaving Hong Kong’s market. The incentives for locals to stay or foreigners to move to Hong Kong therefore plummet, which could further worsen Hong Kong’s brain drain and shatter its prosperity.
A Hard yet Necessary Choice
Admittedly, it is certainly a hard decision for Hong Kong citizens to decide to leave their hometown and move to a new place, which also means that they have to separate from their families and communities that they are strongly tied to.
Enterprises are also not freed from such struggles because Hong Kong has long been a well-developed international city allowing them to make considerable profits.
However, in view of the current situation in Hong Kong, leaving inevitably became a more favourable decision. While the Hong Kong government is kept reassuring citizens that emigration is an irrational move and Hong Kong’s future will remain prosperous, the reality seems to be the opposite. The Hong Kong government is clearly paying the price of stepping on a more authoritarian path and adhering to the strict Covid-19 policies.
Ho Ting (Bosco) Hung is a Research Assistant at the LSE Department of Government. He writes about Sino-US relations, Chinese politics, foreign policy, and political economy. Recently, he presented at the Oxford Hong Kong Forum 2022 and his presentation topic is ‘We are Writing the World History – Hong Kong as the Geopolitical Forefront of Sino-US politics’.