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Emigration generation: Will Hong Kong experience another a brain drain?

Written by
Time Out Hong Kong

A recent poll shows that the majority of people aged between 18 and 30 would leave Hong Kong if they could. Isobel Dobson looks into why the city’s youth are so keen to head abroad and whether we should feed a pre-97 style brain drain

In the 13 years between the signing of the Sino-British Declaration and the handover in 1997, it has been estimated that up to 800,000 people left Hong Kong. The change of sovereignty that occurred meant citizens of Hong Kong no longer had the right to British citizenship. That, and lingering memories of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, sparked a mass migration to countries like Canada, Australia and the US.

Now there are fears of a new exodus. In September, the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong conducted a survey that revealed 57 percent of Hongkongers between the ages of 18 and 30 would leave Hong Kong if they had the chance. The figures were lower for other age groups, but young people provide a country with a future. However, with increasing political and financial concerns, the worry is that our millennials could head for the exit, leaving Hong Kong in an even deeper hole. 

“Younger generations in Hong Kong are the most dissatisfied group and indicated great desire to leave,” states Dr Victor Zheng, one of the leaders of the study at CUHK. “Dissatisfaction with the SAR government’s performance and recent socio-political developments are some of their reasons. Widening social cleavages and an overcrowded living environment require us to pay more attention [to their concerns].” Upset with the government has risen rapidly since Occupy Central in 2014 and Beijing’s refusal to compromise on the issues that sparked the protest. With little power to influence the politics of the city, Hong Kong’s youth feel helpless in their own home.

This news shouldn’t come as a surprise. Dr Andy Kwan Cheuk-chui, a financial consultant at the Ace Centre For Business and Economic Research, released an article months before the Occupy protests erupted, commenting on an ‘SAR government popularity survey’ undertaken earlier in 2014. “The most dissatisfied with the performance of the Chief Executive is a group of highly educated young people,” Dr Kwan writes. “This is of great alarm, since this group of young people are the future pillars of society.” 

If young Hongkongers were to leave, where would they go? The CUHK survey highlighted Taiwan as the most preferred destination, followed by Australia and then Canada. Mary Chan, an immigration specialist at Rothe International Canada, states that the number of emigrants from Hong Kong are increasing and says she believes this trend will continue so long as these countries compensate for something Hong Kong dearly lacks. “If you look at the top three reasons given by the respondents for considering leaving – democracy and liberty, ample living space or affordable housing, and a relaxed lifestyle – you can see Taiwan is endowed with these,” she states. Dr Zheng elaborates: “Other pull factors that attract our residents to leave are better air quality or less pollution, peacefulness and a relaxed life. All these show the areas that Hong Kong needs to improve in order to enhance our residents’ quality of life.”  

The priority assigned to livability and space is confirmed when we speak to Amy Poon, a 25-year-old student at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s department of logistics and maritime studies, about what motivates her to consider leaving. “Space is small and expensive, unless I can earn a lot of money after I graduate,” she remarks. “Otherwise it’s hard to have a good standard of living in Hong Kong. Plus my boyfriend lives in North America, so if given the choice, I will obviously move.”

A report by the public policy think tank Civic Exchange predicts a 65 percent rise in Hong Kong’s urban population by 2050, which would likely result in greater population density in already congested areas, a lack of resources, urban planning obstacles and environmental problems. With space such a priority for cramped Hongkongers, is history about to repeat itself with a new wave of mass migration in the near future? “Hong Kong has a long history of migrants moving in and out. Hong Kong’s prosperity was built on its freedom of movement – goods, currency, information and people,” Dr Zheng reminds us. He is optimistic that even if current locals move out, they are likely to be replaced by new immigrants who will help maintain a social balance and contribute economically to avoid any brain drain.

Dr Zheng is confident when he recommends that no-one should overreact. “My suggestion in the first place is to avoid over-interpretation of the survey figures,” he tells us. He also states that moving countries is easier said than done. “Migration costs a lot for everyone,” he says. “It is not a simple flick of thought.” During the 1980s and 1990s, many of the local inhabitants who emigrated to Western countries worked in senior positions or at management level, which suggests money was not a significant issue. “Unlike their predecessors, who really had accumulated sufficient resources and could choose to leave,” Dr Zheng says, “our younger generations can’t afford to leave, so their discontent may turn to radical localism or protectionism.” 

Simple economics seems to indicate that Hong Kong will avoid the kind of brain drain experienced prior to the handover and Dr Zheng is of this opinion. He tells us: “Given the current world economic-political environment, I don’t think there’ll be another mass migration like the 80s and 90s.” On the other hand, suggests Dr Zheng, such a movement of people might not be such a bad thing after all. “It was good for Hong Kong from the perspective of social mobility,” he says, “because many youngsters would have had an improved chance of finding a better job and a good promotion at that time.” However, despite this, the original survey suggests that individuals with a university degree or higher are more likely to leave than those with other levels of education.

Ultimately, the issue is with how to keep our youth from even considering leaving Hong Kong in the first place. What can be done to make them stay? The young people of Hong Kong are our chance, our voice and our future. If both central and local governments continue to ignore their concerns as it can be argued they have been doing, they may well indeed take flight, whatever the obstacles to overcome. Such a loss would make Hong Kong poorer in more ways than one.

For more information on the CUHK survey visit

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