In the first six months of this year, 3,900 people emigrated away from Hong Kong, up 8% from the same period last year, according to official figures. That number is tiny compared with the hundreds of thousands of fearful residents who left before the 1997 handover bound for countries such as Canada—many who have since returned. Still, immigration consultants say, in recent months they have seen more interest from locals seeking to relocate overseas, spurred by concern about the city’s economic and political outlook.
Shirley Leung of Auscan Visa Migration said the number of clients she has seen emigrating from Hong Kong has doubled in the past year. “It’s quite a significant pickup since the last peak in 1997,” says Ms. Leung, who helps her clients tap into investment programs overseas in order to gain residency rights.
Bobby Chan, 46, who applied to emigrate to Canada in June, said he wants to leave Hong Kong because he is anxious about the city’s social and political atmosphere. In the past year, Hong Kong has been polarized over the push for democracy, as well as a government effort—later dropped—to institute pro-Beijing patriotic lessons in schools. Meanwhile the city’s current leader, Leung Chun-ying, has been beleaguered by sundry government scandals, including a number of administration figures who’ve been forced to resign.
“Hong Kong politics is such a mess now, I don’t want my children to grow up in this environment,” said Mr. Chan, who works as a travel agent and has two daughters ages 12 and 13. He said he chose Canada because he studied there as a kid. Also, he adds, “it’s safer than the U.S., and there are no guns.”
Mr. Chan said he first started to think about emigrating a year ago. “The society is not moving forward. I’ve lost my confidence in Hong Kong’s future.”
The city’s economy has grown at an average of around 3% over the past year, and unemployment is an enviably low 3%, but many job opportunities for graduates are in the low-paying services sector.
Recent developments in Hong Kong’s property market are another factor prompting the middle class to leave, said Mary Chan of immigration-consultant group Rothe International Canada. The cost of housing has more than doubled since 2008, and the government has enacted an aggressive round of cooling measures in the past year, causing prices to stall. Many analysts believe the market will begin to tumble in the coming year.
A recent survey by Citibank found that the high cost of living is also deterring Hong Kong residents from having children. An apartment of just 650 square feet apartment on Hong Kong Island, for example, costs about US$1 million, according to government statistics.
“Housing prices have increased to such an extent that they think it’s time for them to materialize that gain,” Ms. Chan said of her clients. “If they sell their flat in Hong Kong—even if it’s a small one—they can live in a house, a sizable house, in a great neighborhood in another country.”
Last year, official figures show, 7,600 people emigrated away from Hong Kong, with most of them going to the U.S., Australia or Canada.
Especially during the summer, Ms. Chan said, many Hong Kong locals are returning from overseas holidays and are inspired to research plans to move once they return to the city’s crowded streets, or are struck by the rising cost of school fees. Every day, she says, she receives numerous calls from potential clients. “The numbers have increased to such an extent that I can’t handle it,” she said, adding that she’s had to work overtime to meet the fresh demand.
Fierce competition for space at the city’s international schools is another force pushing families seeking good English-language education for their children away, Ms. Leung said. “If they wait for a long time and they can’t get into a good school, they may feel more comfortable if they leave.”
“They want more for their kids,” she said, “and they think Hong Kong is not good enough.”
– Te-Ping Chen and Chester Yung
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