They resisted during the 2019 political protests.
Then the nearly two-year epidemic continued.
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, many of them told CNBC, but because Covid restrictions and what they see as an erosion of democratic norms are driving them to leave.
The rise in departures is accelerating the “brain drain” of professional talent – a situation that peaked around March, as omicron-induced COVID-19 cases surged across the city.
Today, Hong Kong lifestyle sites, once dominated by articles on the best foot massage parlors and dim sum in the city, focus on moving to-do lists and gift guides.
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 health, economic interests and levels of public tolerance.
She said Hong Kong continues to protect “human rights and freedoms”, but “one has to follow the law in exercising freedom.”
For people leaving Hong Kong, Lam says it is “one’s freedom to enter and exit”.
Over the past 60 years, Hong Kong’s population has grown nearly every year, from about 3.2 million people in 1961 to 7.5 million in 2019, according to the Hong Kong Department of Census and Statistics.
From 2015 to 2019, the city gained an average of 53,000 new residents annually. However, that’s about the same number of people who left Hong Kong in the first two weeks of March alone, according to the city’s immigration department.
Pei, a long-time resident of Hong Kong, said mothers and children had left Hong Kong in droves after learning that government policies had separated fathers from their children who tested positive for Covid-19. She said many parents have remained in the business, but many are now asking their employers to move in order to leave.
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Hong Kong lost about 93,000 people in 2020, followed by another 23,000 in 2021. But preliminary estimates are that this year will see more people leave.
“For the past two years, people have been thinking about leaving, but in the last six months there has been an absolute exodus,” said Bai Si, who has lived in Hong Kong for 17 years. She requested to be identified by the first letter of her last name due to the sensitivities surrounding the matter in Hong Kong.
She said the motive – something that many of those who spoke to CNBC for this story – were echoed by the high-profile policy that separated children infected with Covid from their parents earlier this year.
“A lot of parents are, understandably, scared, so they booked themselves the first few flights,” she said.
Pei estimates that 60-70% of his friends have left in the past six to 12 months, including people with business and family in Hong Kong as well as those who were very determined to stay.
Moving to Singapore
Pai said most people leaving are heading to the same place: Singapore.
“Everyone goes to Singapore,” Pai said, especially those who work in finance, law and employment.
Kai Cote, CEO of Hong Kong-based Silk Relo Transportation, agrees, saying that people are drawn to the ease of doing business in Singapore, family friendliness, tax incentives and open borders.
In its 40 years of existence, she said, the past three years have been the busiest ever for Silk Relo’s sister removal company, Asian Tigers.
“We can’t keep up with the capacity,” she said. “We don’t have enough people to service what’s going on in the market.”
She said families are moving to Singapore, but small and medium-sized businesses are also moving. She said that while one CEO may have left in the past, now they are “all leaving.” Small businesses “take the whole team and put them in Singapore.”
Cynthia Ang, CEO of staffing firm Keri Consulting, said major companies are also moving to Singapore. She cited L’Oreal, Moet Hennessy and VF Corporation – the latter which owns brands like Timberland and North Face – as examples, noting that there are others who have yet to deliver their judgments.
“We are getting more calls from our customers who … are telling us they are going to move the entire Asia Pacific office to Singapore,” she said.
Ang said other companies are based in Hong Kong, but are downsizing their offices and moving their regional headquarters to Singapore.
Australian Kristel Edwards said she had lived in Hong Kong for 12 years and wanted to stay, but she and her husband decided to leave by September.
“If things look like 2023 in Hong Kong – hotel quarantine restrictions, all that stuff – then we’re moving to Singapore,” she said.
“We’ve reached a point where there’s a lot going on.”
When temporary becomes permanent
Edwards said some people are circumventing Hong Kong’s strict restrictions by taking extended vacations.
“A lot of the families that I know left about three or four months ago,” Edwards said. “There is a lot in Thailand – they packed up and went to Phuket or [Koh] Samui. … They all have villas, some of them even put their children in schools there, and said they will be back in Hong Kong in August or September.
Many expats have returned home for a few months this year. Now Bay said she has noticed a lot of these people are not coming back.
It happens “absolutely,” Kutt said, as evidenced by the number of movements that happen without customers present. Before Covid, “absentee shippers” were rare, she said, but due to the number of requests, Silk Relo created a service in which a member of the team works on-site on behalf of the customer who could not be present to make the move.
Cote said lockdown and quarantine policies along with a round of school closures have prompted many arrivals to return home – to the US, UK, Australia and other countries – for good.
She said rooted locals are also leaving.
Hong Kong-born Kam Lon Young said his family was moving to Sydney, where he lived as a child.
“We consider [Hong Kong] At home, it is difficult to leave, especially given the amount we have emotionally invested in the city.” However, “the 2019 protests against the current pandemic situation and seeing friends already leave … made our decision a little easier.
Lisa Terauchi grew up in Hong Kong, but left just before her 45th birthday, after her husband lost his job as a captain at Cathay Dragon, a Hong Kong-based airline that closed operations at the end of 2020. She and her family moved to the Netherlands, where her husband is from. .
Hong Kong “is no longer the country I grew up in, and it is no longer the country I remember,” she said.
Terauchi said she has friends who are leaving, some of whom have lived there longer than her. Although her eldest son is completing a master’s degree in Hong Kong, she said she and her husband are unlikely to return, even to retain permanent resident status.
“I mean, is it still worth it?” she says.
Cote said others have moved to the United Kingdom and Canada. During the pandemic, both countries launched visa programs that give eligible Hong Kong residents the right to reside in their jurisdiction.
Hong Kong immigration to Canada is “booming,” according to Canadian immigration website CIC News. However, more are moving to the UK, with more than 100,000 transfer requests in March.
“I noticed, especially I think it was in March, the number of calls [from] …the old Hong Kong families …have a high net worth, may have multiple homes, choose to pack up and leave, Cote said.
“These are the people I would say shocked me to the core,” said Cote, who has lived in Hong Kong for more than 30 years.
Cote said Silk Rilo and Asian tigers are also seeing an “uptick” in movements from Hong Kong to Japan, South Korea and Thailand.
“We are seeing companies choosing Tokyo,” she said, which she said was surprising given that Tokyo has always been a place for companies just looking to get into the Japanese market.
Ang of Kerry Consulting said Dubai is also absorbing talent from Hong Kong. This is especially true of American and European employers who are already in place, she said.
She said Pepsi, Unilever and P&G have transported people from Hong Kong to Dubai.
“Saudi Arabia is also trying to fight for a slice of the pie,” Ang said. “I still haven’t physically seen someone so excited about moving to Saudi Arabia… [but] There are different countries within the United Arab Emirates [are] Try to emulate what Dubai has done over the past two years.”