They resisted during the 2019 political protests.
Then it 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 came to a head around March, when omicron-induced Covid cases surged across the city.
Today, Hong Kong’s lifestyle websites, once dominated by articles about the city’s best dim sum and foot massages, are focused on moving to-do lists and 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 protect “human rights and freedoms” but “one has to follow the law in exercising freedom,” she said.
On people leaving Hong Kong, Lam says it’s 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. Still, that’s roughly the same number of people who left 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 learning that government policies separated parents from their children who tested positive for Covid-19, said Pei, a longtime resident of Hong Kong. Many parents stayed at work, she said, but many are now asking for transfers to their employers to leave.
Stone Parks | AFP | Getty Images
Hong Kong lost around 93,000 people 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 by her last initial due to sensitivities around the matter in Hong Kong.
The trigger, she said — something echoed by many who spoke to CNBC for this story — was the high-profile politics 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 determined to stay.
moving to singapore
Most people leaving, Pei said, are heading to the same place: Singapore.
“Everyone goes 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, agrees, saying people are drawn to Singapore’s ease of doing business, family friendliness, tax incentives and open borders.
In 40 years of existence, the last three years have been the busiest on record for Silk Relo’s sister removal 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 business executive may have left in the past, now “everyone is leaving,” she said. Small companies “take the whole team and put it 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 owner of brands such as Timberland and North Face – as examples, while noting that there are others that have yet to make decisions.
“We’re getting more calls from our customers who … tell us they’re going to move the entire Asia Pacific office to Singapore,” she said.
Other companies are staying in Hong Kong but downsizing their offices and moving their regional headquarters to Singapore, Ang said.
Australian Krystle Edwards said she had lived in Hong Kong for 12 years and wanted to stay, but she and her husband will decide to leave in September.
“If things look like 2023 in Hong Kong – quarantine restrictions on hotels, all that stuff – we are moving to Singapore,” she said.
“It’s getting to the point where it’s too much.”
When the temporary becomes permanent
Some people get around Hong Kong’s strict restrictions by taking extended vacations, Edwards said.
“A lot of the families I know are gone for about three or four months,” Edwards said. “Many are in Thailand – they just packed up and went to Phuket or [Koh] Samui. … They all have villages, some even send their children to school there, and they said they would return to Hong Kong in August or September.
Many expats have returned home for a few months this year. Now Pei said he has noticed that many of these people are not coming back.
Kutt said it was happening “absolutely”, as evidenced by the number of moves that happen without customers being present. Before Covid, “absent carriers” 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 move. .
leave for good
Lockdown and quarantine policies, along with a merry-go-round of school closures, have driven many expats to return home – to the US, UK, Australia and other countries – for good, Kutt said.
But deeply rooted residents are also leaving, she said.
Hong Kong-born Kam Lun Yeung said his family was moving to Sydney, where he lived as a child.
“We considered [Hong Kong] 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 leave… 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 had friends leaving, some who had lived there longer than she had. 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 resident status.
“I mean, is it still worth it?” she says.
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 jurisdiction.
Hong Kong immigration to Canada is “exploding,” according to Canadian immigration website, CIC News. Even more are moving to the UK, with over 100,000 move requests in March.
“I noticed, especially I think it was March, the number of calls [from] … long-time Hong Kong families … they have high net worth, may have multiple homes, choose to pack up and leave,” Kutt said.
“These are the ones I would say shocked me deeply,” said Kutt, who has lived in Hong Kong for more than 30 years.
Silk Relo and Asian Tigers are also seeing an “increase” in movements from Hong Kong to Japan, South Korea and Thailand, Kutt said.
“We’re seeing companies choosing Tokyo,” she said, which she said was surprising given that Tokyo has always 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 are already there.
Pepsi, Unilever and P&G transferred people from Hong Kong to Dubai, she said.
“Saudi Arabia is also trying to fight for a piece of the pie,” Ang said. “I have yet to physically see someone who is so excited about moving to Saudi Arabia… [but] there are different nations within the UAE that [are] try to mirror what Dubai has done in the last couple of years.”