Hong Kong is one of the world’s best places to live and work – but for how much longer?

  • Bernard Chan says fears of a Hong Kong brain drain are overblown. The city’s long life expectancy, high education levels and low crime rate are just some of the advantages it offers residents, but key livelihood issues have become a concern
PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 January, 2019, 10:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 January, 2019, 10:17am

The latest Henley Passport Index has just been in the news. This is a table of some 200 different passports listed in order of how many countries and territories the holders can visit without a visa.

The Hong Kong passport this year comes in at 19th place and entitles holders to enter 169 countries and territories without a visa. The top passport – Japan’s – gives visa-free access to 190 places. The China passport is ranked 69th with visa-free access to 74 places.

This ranking shows a high degree of international recognition of our travel documents. In day-to-day terms, it means a great deal of convenience for Hongkongers. Essentially, it indicates that foreign border control officials are confident that we have no reason to overstay and will go back home.

However, a narrative I have seen recently in several international news outlets suggests something a bit different: that a growing number of people are thinking of emigrating from Hong Kong.

Stories of a brain drain are not new. A Chinese University survey shows a fairly consistent level of around a third of people interested in leaving. Security Bureau estimates show that annual emigration numbers have declined from the peak of 10,300 in 2006 to a new low of around 6,500 in 2017. We also have a steady stream of returnees, of course.

I am sceptical about the idea of a major increase in emigration. It makes for a good story – based purely on anecdotes – in the media. But if we look at some basic indicators, Hong Kong is one of the best places to live and work.

Hongkongers live longer than people anywhere else in the world; the average life expectancy is 81.7 years for men and 87.66 years for women. This reflects a number of factors, including low rates of smoking, good access to health care and – among the older generation – a generally good diet with a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables.

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Hong Kong’s education levels are among the best in the world. International studies typically place us among the top three or four jurisdictions in the world for literacy and numeracy.

Education standards are directly related to economic productivity. Add low taxes, good infrastructure and the opportunities from rapid growth on the mainland and elsewhere, and the result is Hong Kong’s vibrant economy and low unemployment.

To see what this means in practice, compare white-collar salary levels in Hong Kong with those in many other places – especially after tax.

Another big advantage Hong Kong has is our low crime rate. The police announced last week that a record low of 54,225 crimes were reported in the whole of 2018 – a 3.2 per cent drop from the previous year. We take this for granted, but the fact is we have an incredibly safe city.

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I could go on about all sorts of positive things, from our amazing range of food and restaurants to our country parks and even our culture scene, which has been transformed in the past few decades.

Yes, we all know that Hong Kong is far from perfect. The huge economic gains of the past few decades have also increased inequality. Looking back, policymakers have made mistakes. Housing is an obvious problem, but quality of life in general is an issue. The government has struggled to keep up with expectations, especially those of the younger generation. There is discontent, which has fed into radical opposition and raised concerns in Beijing.

We can have the lowest taxes and crime rates, and the best hiking trails and restaurants – but there is no point if small and expensive housing, poor choice of affordable schools and bad air drive families elsewhere.

If the Hong Kong government and wider community do not continue to address key basic livelihood and quality of life issues, the pessimists could one day be proved right. There could come a time when other places in the region and further afield look, on balance, like seriously better places to live.

If that ever happened, the stories about a drastic increase in emigration could be true. The challenge for our leaders is to ensure that this doesn’t happen – and Hongkongers go on using their widely accepted passports simply to enjoy convenient holiday and business travel.

Bernard Chan is convenor of Hong Kong’s Executive Council