People are leaving Hong Kong and this is where they are going

They resisted during the 2019 political protests.

Then they lasted almost two years of pandemic.

But this year, they say they’ve had enough.

Hong Kong residents are leaving the city in droves in 2022 — not because they want to, several told CNBC, but because Covid restrictions and what they see as an erosion of democratic norms are driving them to leave.

A surge in departures is accelerating a “brain drain” of professional talent — a situation that peaked around March, when omicron-driven Covid cases skyrocketed across the city.

Now Hong Kong’s increasingly lively lifestyle websites, once dominated by articles about the city’s best dim sum salons and foot massages, are focusing on moving to-do lists and parting gift guides.

‘Absolute mass exodus’

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Lam said on April 26 that the government’s Covid rules balance economic and health interests with levels of public tolerance. .

Hong Kong continues to safeguard “human rights and freedoms”, but that “the law must be observed in the exercise of freedom”, she said.

On the subject of people leaving Hong Kong, Lam said it is their “individual freedom to come and go.”

Over the past 60 years, Hong Kong’s population has grown almost every year, from about 3.2 million people in 1961 to 7.5 million in 2019, according to the Hong Kong Bureau of Census and Statistics.

From 2015 to 2019, the city gained an average of 53,000 new residents per year. However, that’s roughly the same number of people who departed Hong Kong in the first two weeks of March alone, according to the city’s Immigration Department.

Mothers and children left Hong Kong in droves after news broke that government policies were separating parents from their children who tested positive for Covid-19, said Pei, a longtime resident of Hong Kong. Many parents continued to work, she said, but many are now asking for transfers to their employers to leave.

Peter’s Parks | afp | Getty Images

Hong Kong lost around 93,000 residents in 2020, followed by another 23,000 in 2021. But early estimates show that this year will see many more people leave.

“For the last two years, people have thought about leaving, but in the last six months there has been an absolute mass exodus,” said Pei C., who has lived in Hong Kong for 17 years. She asked to be identified with her last initial because of the sensitivities around the subject in Hong Kong.

The trigger, she said — echoed by several people who spoke to CNBC for this story — was the highly publicized policy that separated Covid-positive children from their parents earlier this year.

“A lot of parents, understandably, got scared, so they booked on the first few flights,” she said.

Pei estimates that 60-70% of his friends have left in the last six to 12 months, which includes people with businesses and family members in Hong Kong, as well as those who were already deeply committed to staying.

moving to singapore

Most of the people leaving, Pei said, are heading to the same place: Singapore.

“Everyone is going to Singapore,” Pei said, especially those working in finance, law and recruitment, she said.

Kay Kutt, CEO of Hong Kong-based relocation company Silk Relo, agreed, saying people are drawn to Singapore’s ease of doing business, family friendliness, tax incentives and open borders.

In its 40 years of existence, the past three years have been the busiest on record for Silk Relo’s sister moving company, Asian Tigers, she said.

“We can’t keep up with capacity,” she said. “We don’t have enough people to attend to what is happening in the market.”

Families are moving to Singapore, she said, but small and medium-sized businesses are also moving. While a company executive may have left in the past, now “everyone is leaving,” she said. Small companies are “taking the whole team and putting them in Singapore”.

Big companies are also moving to Singapore, said Cynthia Ang, executive director of recruitment firm Kerry Consulting. She cited L’Oreal, Moet Hennessy and VF Corporation – the latter which owns brands such as Timberland and North Face – as examples, while noting that there are more that have yet to make their decisions public.

“We get more calls from our customers who are… sharing with us that they are moving their entire Asia Pacific office to Singapore,” she said.

Other companies are staying in Hong Kong but downsizing their offices and moving regional headquarters to Singapore, Ang said.

Australian Krystle Edwards said she has lived in Hong Kong for 12 years and wants to stay, but she and her husband will decide whether to leave by September.

“If the situation looks like 2023 is going to be more of the same in Hong Kong – quarantine restrictions on hotels, all that sort of thing – we are moving to Singapore,” she said.

“It gets to a point where it’s too much.”

When the temporary becomes permanent

Some people are facing Hong Kong’s strict Covid restrictions by taking extended vacations, Edwards said.

“A lot of families I know have been gone for three or four months,” Edwards said. “There are loads of them in Thailand – they just packed up and went to Phuket or [Koh] Samui. … They all have villages, some even sent their children to school there, and they said they would return to Hong Kong in August or September.”

Many expats have gone home for a few months this year. Now Pei said she is realizing that many of these people are not coming back.

Kutt said this is “absolutely” happening, as evidenced by the number of moves that occur without customers being present. Before Covid, “away senders” were rare, she said, but due to the number of requests, Silk Relo created a service where an on-site team member acts on behalf of a customer who cannot be present for a change.

leaving forever

Lockdown and quarantine policies, along with a merry-go-round of school closures, have caused many expats to return home — to the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and other countries — for good, Kutt said.

But deeply entrenched residents are also leaving, she said.

Hong Kong-born Kam Lun Yeung said his family is moving to Sydney, where he lived as a child.

“We considered [Hong Kong] from home, and it’s hard to leave, especially considering how emotionally invested we are in the city,” he said. However, “the 2019 protests against the current pandemic situation and seeing friends leaving… made our decision a little easier.”

Lisa Terauchi grew up in Hong Kong but left shortly before her 45th birthday after her husband lost his job as captain of Cathay Dragon, a Hong Kong-based airline that ceased operations in late 2020. She and her family moved to Holland, where her husband is from.

Hong Kong “wasn’t the country I grew up in anymore, it wasn’t the country I remembered anymore,” she said.

Terauchi said she has friends who are leaving, some who have lived there longer than she has. Although her eldest son is completing his master’s degree in Hong Kong, she said she and her husband are unlikely to return, even to maintain their permanent residency status.

“I mean, is it still worth it?” she said.

Others have moved to the UK and Canada, Kutt said. During the pandemic, both countries launched visa programs that grant eligible Hong Kong residents the right to reside in their jurisdictions.

Hong Kong immigration to Canada is “exploding,” according to Canadian immigration website, CIC News. However, even more are moving to the UK, with over 100,000 applying to move from March.

“I noticed, especially I think it was in March, the number of calls [from] … long-time Hong Kong families … they have high net worth, they may have multiple homes, they are choosing to pack up and leave,” Kutt said.

“These were the ones I would say shook me to the core,” said Kutt, who has lived in Hong Kong for more than 30 years.

Where else?

Silk Relo and Asian Tigers are also seeing an “increase” in transfers from Hong Kong to Japan, South Korea and Thailand, Kutt said.

“We’re seeing companies choosing Tokyo,” she said, which she indicated was surprising given that Tokyo has historically been a place for companies just looking to tap into the Japanese market.

Dubai is also absorbing talent from Hong Kong, said Ang of Kerry Consulting. She said this is especially true for US and European employers who already have a presence there.

Pepsi, Unilever and P&G transferred people from Hong Kong to Dubai, she said.

“Saudi Arabia is trying to fight for a piece of the pie” too, Ang said. “I haven’t physically seen anyone who is so excited about moving to Saudi Arabia yet… [but] there are different nations within the UAE that [are] trying to mirror what Dubai has done in the last two years.”

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