Security law threatens to trigger Hong Kong exodus

China’s clampdown in the free-wheeling city could spark a brain drain

Hong Kong faces a brain drain that could destroy the city’s cosmopolitan image and damage its status as South East Asia’s financial powerhouse.

Nearly half of those interviewed in an American Chamber of Commerce survey admitted they were planning or contemplating leaving the former British colony.

Concerns about the Beijing-imposed National Security Law were cited as the main reason for the lack of confidence in Hong Kong’s future.

“Previously, I never had a worry about what I said or wrote when I was in Hong Kong,” one of the anonymous respondents to the American Chamber of Commerce survey said.

“That has changed. The red lines are vague and seem to be arbitrary. I don’t want to continue to fear saying or writing something that could unknowingly cause me to be arrested,” the person added.

The facts:

  • The AmCham poll in Hong Kong was released on Wednesday and involved 325 respondents or 24% of the business organization’s members.
  • At least 42% of those surveyed considered leaving or planned to leave the city.
  • Up to 62% cited “the National Security Law” as one of the main reasons.
  • About 49% of those leaving blamed coronavirus-related travel restrictions.
  • Around 42% were pessimistic about Hong Kong’s competitiveness.
  • Almost 24% felt the city was too expensive.

Trading places: “The number of foreign companies with offices in Hong Kong has fallen for the first time in 11 years, with a notable drop in financial firms, as concerns over social unrest and the city’s political autonomy push businesses to consider other Asian hubs,” Nikkei Asia reported in December.

Delve deeper: The National Security Law came into force last year after pro-democracy protests in 2019 threatened to paralyze the city. Leading figures in the movement have since been charged and jailed. Many under the new legislation.

City clampdown: The law punishes secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison. The draconian measures have been condemned by the United States and its allies, including the European Union and the United Kingdom, as well as Australia. 

Historical point: Hong Kong was handed back to China by the UK in 1997 under the “One Country, Two Systems” model. At the time, Beijing guaranteed the city a high degree of autonomy with limited democracy. But that no longer exists.

Passport to freedom: Up to one million Hong Kong citizens holding British National Overseas passports could move to the UK in the next five years. 

On the move: “This is the biggest emigration boom in Hong Kong’s history. People from different levels of society are all talking about emigration,” Andrew Lo, a Hong Kong emigration consultant, told Nikkei Asia in March.

China Factor comment: For many overseas workers, foreign permanent residents and Hong Kong citizens, the city has lost its mojo. They feel the vibrancy that made Hong Kong unique has been replaced with an atmosphere of suspicion.