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Hong Kong Sees Record Population Drop; Political Changes, Pandemic Blamed

FILE - Passengers line up at a check-in counter at Hong Kong International Airport, April 1, 2022.
FILE - Passengers line up at a check-in counter at Hong Kong International Airport, April 1, 2022.

Hong Kong has seen a record decrease in its population in the last 12 months, new data shows.

Self-proclaimed as “Asia’s World City,” Hong Kong’s international reputation has taken a hit with political unrest and strict pandemic measures in recent years.

Since anti-government protests three years ago, an increasing number of residents have left the Chinese territory.

More than 113,000 residents left the city in the past year, meaning a record 1.6% decline and the biggest ever drop since record keeping began more than 60 years ago.

It follows the previous year’s decline of 0.3% as 89,200 people departed the city, while 20,900 people left in 2020.

The population has now dropped from 7.41 million to 7.29 million, according to the latest figures from Hong Kong’s Census and Statistics Department.

Earlier this year, analysts told VOA the decline was due to the political unrest and strict pandemic measures in the city. A Hong Kong government spokesperson said the population decline was due to the lack of new arrivals in the city.

Lucy Jordan, associate professor in social work at the University of Hong Kong, has lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. She told VOA via email this week that it was clear the exodus accelerated when COVID-19 cases spiked last year.

“I called it a perfect storm when the fifth wave hit in the winter 2022. This was when we saw a massive and sudden exodus; however, if you live here, you knew that the exodus was steady and ongoing before and after that peak. All you have to do is look at your social calendar to see the goodbye events," she said.

Pandemic measures

Since the pandemic began in 2020, Hong Kong health authorities have used a "Zero COVID" policy, aiming to eradicate all known cases of the infection by imposing tough measures on residents including bans on group gatherings, contact tracing, and strict curfews. For residents and professionals, lengthy quarantines have been required to reenter the city.

Last week, Chief Executive John Lee cut the quarantine period to three days from seven, and Jordan thinks this could have an impact on the exodus.

"The leaving figures are also accentuated by the fact it still remains quite difficult to enter Hong Kong. There remains much to be understood about the real meaning and implications of the new census figures," she added.

Stephen Tong, 42, says he and his family left Hong Kong for Canada in April because of the swift changes the city is facing.

“I feel Hong Kong is no longer the same. The lack of freedom and human rights make it feel like a big prison. The zero COVID policy just actualized that belief,” he told VOA. "It has turned against the youth and views them as enemies. I have two small children and I don’t want them to go to jail or be a thug for the government,” he added, referring to the government's crackdown on protesters.

“Almost all of our friends with children have left. We were almost the last batch. We are not planning to go back to Hong Kong anytime soon since speaking against the government is against the law and we do not want to live in a place where we cannot speak our mind," Tong added.

Following the 2019 protests, in which authorities arrested thousands of people, Beijing responded by enacting a national security law upon Hong Kong, carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for acts deemed as secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion. Authorities have cracked down on dissidents, independent media and civil society in the city.

Jessica Wong, 26, also recently moved to Toronto, Canada from Hong Kong.

“The main reason for my moving is the consideration of my next generation. I am not yet married but just want to plan for that earlier, especially with the current political environment.”

Wong says that access to universities in Hong Kong has been limited in recent years. Anti-government protesters clashed with police on at least two campuses in the city in 2019, prompting extra security measures at the schools.

“University is always like a microcosm of society. Shutting people out seems to protect the students but at the same time, students lose the chance to learn how to differentiate right or wrong, good or bad,” she added.

An offer of citizenship made by Britain for millions of Hong Kong residents has contributed to thousands leaving, the figures indicate.

Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997 when it was returned to China.

Following activation of the security law in the territory, Britain announced it would extend the rights of British National Overseas, or BNO, passport holders in Hong Kong, with up to 5.4 million residents eligible. The scheme gives Hong Kong residents born before 1997 a “pathway to citizenship” after five years.

According to data released by the British government, 123,400 BNO applications have been received.

Fiona Chan, 26, is a marketing professional who recently moved to Britain with her boyfriend. She says the education system was the reason she left Hong Kong.

“I have thought of the future of my family planning. If I stay in Hong Kong, I won’t give birth to a child, because I actually disagree with the cramming education in Hong Kong. Instead, I like more inspirational education in the U.K. I would consider providing a better education for my future child,” she told VOA.

Hong Kong’s education bureau released new guidelines last year, detailing measures that will warn students against “subversion” and so-called “foreign interference” – which are both prohibited under the security law. The first compulsory courses about the security law were taught to university students in November.

More teachers, however, have been leaving their jobs, new data shows. More than 5,000 educators have quit Hong Kong schools between 2020-2021, the South China Morning Post reports.