Hong Kong officials have begun traveling the region in a bid to attract fresh talent, particularly younger people, to settle in the city as a crackdown on dissent continues to drive middle-class families to flee the former British colony.
Secretary for Labour and Welfare Chris Sun made a trip to Singapore and the Philippines earlier this month to peddle the “advantages” offered by Hong Kong’s proximity to mainland China and its growing integration with other cities in the Pearl River Delta under the “Greater Bay Area” plan.
Chief Executive John Lee announced a slew of measures last October including a scheme aimed at enticing graduates from the world’s top 100 universities, including two in Singapore, to come and work in the city.
The moves come amid an exodus of middle-class families, who vote with their feet, with families citing the curbs on freedom of speech and growing political interference in schools as driving factors in their decision to leave.
A middle-class professional who gave only the surname Wong said he will be emigrating with his family to the United Kingdom next week, giving up a highly paid job with career prospects to escape the long arm of Beijing. The unpredictability of life under Communist Party rule was a key deciding factor.
“Here in China and Hong Kong we went from total lockdowns to totally ignoring this virus in the space of a week, saying it’s just like a cold, but it’s actually the same virus,” Wong said. “It’s clear that policy-making is totally irrational.”
But Wong said he didn’t decide to leave due to the government’s COVID-19 policy.
“What matters more … are political considerations, [concerns about] whether there is any guarantee of a good life here in the long run,” he said. “That’s what made me determined to leave.”
The moves also come as the United States on Thursday extended by two years a rule that has allowed Hong Kong residents already in the United States to remain instead of being deported back to the Chinese territory.
The Deferred Enforced Departure exemptions for Hong Kong residents were introduced in August 2021 and were set to expire on Feb. 5, according to a memorandum from the White House, which said the decision was in line with “our democratic values.”
“Offering safe haven for Hong Kong residents who have been deprived of their guaranteed freedoms in Hong Kong furthers United States interests in the region,” it said. “The United States will continue to stand firm in our support of the people in Hong Kong.”
China began cracking down on Hong Kong’s sovereignty in the wake of the 2019-2020 protests against a proposed extradition law that would have allowed Beijing to arrest dissidents in the self-governing territory and move them to the mainland’s judicial system.
Net departures of permanent residents totaled 113,000 for the whole of 2022, while the city’s population fell by 1.2 percent in the 12 months to August 2021, prompting calls from media backed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party for the government to act to stem the brain drain.
A woman who gave only the surname Auyeung said she is planning to leave with her family this year, because “Hong Kong is no longer free under the national security law.”
She said she and her husband are now both censoring themselves in the workplace to avoid overstepping invisible “red lines.” The repercussions of coercive policy-making are already being felt at their child’s kindergarten.
“The kindergarten teacher called me and said our kid couldn’t attend full time any more because they didn’t get two shots of [China’s homegrown COVID-19 vaccine],” Auyeung said. “I am absolutely disgusted that the government is using children’s access to schooling to drive up the vaccination rate.”
“We both work, and there is no childcare at home if the kid is home for half the day,” she said. “I want to get out of here fast.”
Sociologist Chung Kim-wah said those who can afford to leave are generally doing so.
“There used to always be a difference between Hong Kong and mainland China, and we used to believe that Hong Kong’s way of life would be respected … but this government will only act on China’s say-so,” Chung said.
“They have just imported China’s way of doing things wholesale, giving families who previously had little incentive to leave plenty of reason to reconsider,” he said.
Civil servants, doctors leaving
Many of those who are leaving actually work for the government, either as civil servants, or as healthcare professionals and educators.
The city’s civil service currently numbers just over 170,000, 17,000 short of its full complement, with more than 9,000 vacancies for senior civil servants currently open.
Former civil servant-turned-YouTuber Woo Wong-jan once held a senior scientific post at the Hong Kong Observatory, which tracks the territory’s weather.
While not a highly political area of work, Woo said civil servants in all departments are being forced to take pledges of loyalty to Beijing, as well as accept curbs on public speech under the national security law.
“The requirement for civil servants to take an oath derives from the national security law, which also restricts their freedom of speech,” he said.
“I used to work at the Observatory, and I wasn’t involved in politics, but some things would have been unavoidable for me as a civil servant, including being educated about the national security law and doing certain things I wouldn’t necessarily be willing to do,” Woo said.
“I could see that Hong Kong would change a lot in the next few years, and I asked myself whether I would want to live somewhere like that?” he said. “I didn’t, so I decided to resign.”
Public documents have revealed that more than 10,000 of Woo’s colleagues left the civil service between 2021 and 2022, some 4,000 of them due to resignation rather than retirement or being fired.
Medical professionals are another group that is voting with their feet, with staff turnover rates in government hospitals at just over 8% for doctors and nearly 11% for nurses by October 2022, according to the Hospital Authority.
A former public hospital doctor who gave only the surname Cheung said she is unsure whether government schemes to replace Hong Kong’s lost middle-classes — which included allowing mainland-China trained healthcare professionals to practice in Hong Kong — will be effective.
“Can the fresh talent recruited by the government replace what has been lost?” Cheung said. “China’s medical system, knowledge and skills are not the same as Hong Kong’s.”
“Medical treatment isn’t just about handing out medicine or performing surgery, but involves connections between people, technology, management styles as well as degree of adherence to morality and values,” she said.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.