HONG KONG — Before its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, a wave of Hong Kong citizens emigrated to the United States, Canada and Australia, fearful of a future under Communist rule. That exodus slowed as China proved willing to respect Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle. Now, however, social and political factors are again driving Hong Kongers to leave the former British colony.
The China Post reported this week that the number of Hong Kong citizens seeking residency in Taiwan has grown six-fold in the last half year, rising to nearly 700 applications in September.
Immigration consultant Mary Chan, of Rothe International Canada, said her Hong Kong office has been inundated with inquiries from families seeking to move overseas.
Similar trends occurred during the 1997 handover, the 1998 Asian financial crisis and the 2003 SARS outbreak, but Chan thinks that different factors are at play this time.
“They are not so happy with the situation now in Hong Kong. The majority are concerned about the education of their kids; it’s not easy to get them into a good school. Property prices are the second concern. For middle class families, prices are really unaffordable,” said Chan.
Almost 4,000 people emigrated from Hong Kong in the first half of 2013, a rise of eight percent from last year. Migration is “the talk of the town,” said legislator Fernando Cheung. The cost of living is certainly a factor; Cheung cited data indicating his constituents would have to pay an average $1 million to buy even a tiny apartment in Hong Kong’s central district.
However, he also observed that frustration with the Hong Kong government - and Beijing’s increasing erosion of the city’s fiercely guarded political autonomy - are also driving the latest exodus.
“The government lacks legitimate support. There is no real democracy and more direct manipulation by [China] of Hong Kong affairs. In the most recent saga, about the issue of free public TV licenses, there is hard evidence China was trying to impact how legislators would vote. We are losing our autonomy, and people are thinking of moving away, permanently,” said Cheung.
Rightly or wrongly, many Hong Kongers blame their woes on an influx of mainland Chinese visitors. In just the last year, 35 million mainlanders came to the city.
Many of these visitors enter on visas allocated by Beijing, not the local authorities. Half a million settled in the city in the last decade. The total population of Hong Kong is just seven million.
They are now commonly referred to as “locusts”, due to their voracious consumption of Hong Kong resources and the pressure they put on infrastructure, including schools and hospitals.
In September, before the academic year began, thousands of Hong Kong parents camped for days outside local kindergartens. They were there to secure scarce places for their own children before those places were claimed by children born to mainland families.
One mother, a marketing executive and mother of two, is in the process of relocating her family to North America. Close to tears, she feels she is being driven away from her home.
“We are sad to leave. We love Hong Kong. But we feel there is nothing we can do. Even if we fight, what will happen? I am very afraid that June 4th will be repeated here,” she said, referring to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Beijing is aware that Hong Kongers are increasingly resentful of China, its government and its people. Of particular concern is a civic movement, driven by Hong Kong’s professional classes, that intends to occupy the city’s business district next summer.
The campaign will highlight how Beijing has stalled on its promise to implement universal suffrage. Cheung wonders how the central government will deal with the restless Cantonese in Hong Kong, and cannot help but make a comparison between the city and Xinjiang and Tibet.
“There is a sense among many of my constituents that the mainland has intentionally tried to create this influx to dilute the Hong Kong population… employing the same tactic they use in Xinjiang to maintain very tight control of the ethnic minorities over there,” said Cheung.
This weekend, following the recent Communist Party plenary session, deputy secretary general of the National People’s Congress standing committee, Li Fei, will hold talks in Hong Kong about political reform.
While the population awaits change, government figures confirm that for only the eighth time in the last 50 years, more people are leaving Hong Kong to build a new life overseas than are putting down roots in this southern Chinese city.