A farewell photograph before a flight to London from Hong Kong taken on July 1. They have become a common sight in recent months. Most of those leaving are young, and many have children. Photo: Edmond So
Then & Now
by Jason Wordie
Then & Now
by Jason Wordie

The current exodus from Hong Kong isn’t like pre-1997 – these people won’t be returning. And that changes the city

  • Those who could see the future and leave easily had begun departing Hong Kong long before the 2019 protests and subsequent national security law
  • Now others are leaving at the rate of 1,000 a day, mostly young couples with children. Good riddance, some may say, but their leaving changes Hong Kong

Emigration from or through Hong Kong has been a constant fact of local life since the colony’s mid-19th century urban beginnings. Is the current wave of departures, therefore, any different from those in the past? Solid reasoning would suggest that it is.

In the lead-up to the 1997 transfer of sovereignty, emigrants were motivated – mostly – by a jittery sense of “what’s going to happen when …”, often informed by direct personal or family experience of Communist rule in mainland China. After acquiring an overseas “insurance policy” through foreign residency or citizenship, many returned home.

And up until the past few years, life here remained more or less the same. But now – as emigration from Hong Kong steadily gathers pace – a different picture emerges. This time, they won’t come back.

Thousands quit Hong Kong, saying it’s no longer the home they knew

Anecdotes are not data. Nevertheless, accumulated similar anecdotes eventually provide enough granularity to give essential context to more solid empirical data. The emerging picture of Hong Kong’s accelerated emigration makes this clear.

Near-deserted since the Covid-19 pandemic began, London-bound airport check-in queues are thronged with mostly young couples with children, several suitcases each, weeping older relatives and one-way tickets. A conservative triangulation of government data suggests that about 1,000 people a day are currently leaving Hong Kong permanently.
Travellers say farewell before departing for London at Hong Kong International Airport. The long queues seen daily at check-in desks for flights to the UK in particular attest to the current exodus from Hong Kong. Many of those leaving are young, often couples with children. Photo: Edmond So

A telling anecdote among far too many; one young friend, a maths teacher in a local primary school in the New Territories, recently related that 60 per cent of his colleagues had either given notice over the past semester due to imminent emigration plans, or signalled their intention to do so within the next academic year. Over the same period, some 15 per cent of the student body of around 800 pupils had been withdrawn for the same reasons. Other friends relate similar stories.

Eventually, these trends become so obvious that repeated denial of their existence is both pointless and counterproductive. By adamantly refusing to acknowledge the mounting evidence before their own eyes, officials further compromise what little remains of their already shattered credibility.

The glass half-full way to look at the exodus from Hong Kong

Just as the 150-a-day one-way permit holders who arrived from China in recent decades was ultimately about gradual population dilution and replacement – whatever official lines about family reunions wearily maintained – the current outflow will be seen by some as a welcome purge of potentially troublesome, disaffected elements.

And if this latest migration movement translates into an embittered, vocal Hong Kong émigré diaspora scattered from Manchester to Melbourne, then – so what? Problems exported, the sour logic runs, are problems removed.

Over four years ago, in this column, I wrote about transnationals – Hong Kong people with the right to live elsewhere. Even in 2017 – long before 2019’s “disturbances” and the national security law changed the place almost beyond recognition – it seemed obvious that these people were beginning to vote with their feet, as the tectonic plates upon which Hong Kong precariously balanced shifted beneath them.
A departing passenger says farewell at Hong Kong International Airport on July 1. A teacher at a school in Hong Kong says 60 per cent of his colleagues have left or plan to leave, and his school’s roll shrank by 15 per cent last semester. Photo: Edmond So

Powerless to effect any positive change in their own hometown, and perhaps more prescient than others, their exit strategies began to be activated. And the process accelerates.

Wei Zhuang, the Tang dynasty poet, disconsolate at the dispersal of the world he once knew, penned the sad lines:

Spring is bright

in the city of Loyang,

But the flower of its youth

Grows old, under other skies.

As anyone farewelling friends at the airport will attest, it is the flower of local youth – not Hong Kong’s malcontents and opportunists – who are heading off to other skies permanently this time. Wherever they settle they will be that society’s gain – and our loss.

Whatever the future here may hold – bright or otherwise – Hong Kong will be very different in the coming years for their absence. There is no point pretending otherwise.