Thousands of people are leaving Hong Kong

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Hong Kong lost residents in 2020 and 2021, but this year is expected to far surpass both years in terms of the numbers of people leaving for good. D3sign | Moment | Getty Images

Residents of Hong Kong are leaving the city in droves in 2022 — not because they want to, several told CNBC, but because Covid restrictions and what they see as an erosion of democratic norms are pushing them to leave.

A surge in departures is accelerating a “brain drain” of professional talent — a situation which hit fever pitch around March, as omicron-driven Covid cases skyrocketed across the city.

Now Hong Kong’s ever-chipper lifestyle websites, once dominated by articles about the city’s best dim sum and foot massages parlors, are focusing on moving to-do lists and farewell gift guides.

The office of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Lam said on April 26 that the government’s Covid rules balance health and economic interests with public tolerance levels.

Hong Kong continues to safeguard “human rights and freedoms” but that “one has to observe the law in exercising freedom,” she said.

On the subject of people leaving Hong Kong, Lam said it’s their “individual freedom to enter and to exit.”

Lockdown and quarantine policies coupled with a merry-go-round of school closures caused many expatriates to return home — to the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and other countries — for good, said Kutt.

But deeply entrenched locals are leaving too, she said.

Hong Kong-born Kam Lun Yeung said his family is moving to Sydney, where he lived as a child.

“We do consider [Hong Kong] home, and it is difficult leaving especially considering how much we have invested emotionally in the city,” he said.  However, “the 2019 protests to the current pandemic situation and seeing friends leaving already … made our decision a little bit easier.”

Lisa Terauchi grew up in Hong Kong, but left just shy of her 45th birthday, after her husband lost his job as a captain with Cathay Dragon, a Hong Kong-based airline that shuttered operations in late 2020. She and her family moved to the Netherlands, where her husband is from.

Hong Kong “was no longer the country I had grown up in, it was no longer the country I remembered,” she said.

For the past 60 years, Hong Kong’s population has grown nearly every year, from some 3.2 million people in 1961 to 7.5 million in 2019, according to Hong Kong’s Census and Statistics Department.

From 2015 to 2019, the city gained an average of 53,000 new residents per year. Yet that is roughly the same number of people who departed Hong Kong during the first two weeks of March alone, according to the city’s Immigration Department. 

Hong Kong lost some 93,000 residents in 2020, followed by another 23,000 in 2021. But early estimates show this year will see far more people go.    

“In the last couple of years people have thought about leaving, but in the last six months there’s been an absolute mass exodus,” said Pei C., who has lived in Hong Kong for 17 years. She asked to be identified with her last initial because of sensitivities surrounding the topic in Hong Kong.

The trigger, she said — one echoed by numerous people who spoke to CNBC for this story — was the highly-publicized policy that separated Covid-positive children from their parents earlier this year.

“A lot of parents, understandably, freaked out, so they booked themselves on the first flights out,” she said.

Pei estimates that 60-70% of her friends have left in the past six to 12 months, which includes people with businesses and family in Hong Kong as well as those who were once deeply committed to staying.

Most people leaving, said Pei, are headed to same place: Singapore. 

“Everyone’s going to Singapore,” said Pei, especially those working in finance, law and recruitment, she said.

Kay Kutt, CEO of the Hong-Kong based relocation company Silk Relo, agreed, saying people are attracted to the ease of business, family friendliness, tax incentives and open borders of Singapore.

In its 40-year existence, the past three years have been the busiest years on record for Silk Relo’s sister moving company, Asian Tigers, she said.

“We cannot keep up with the capacity,” she said. “We don’t have enough people to serve what’s going on in the marketplace.”   

Families are transferring to Singapore, she said, but small- and medium-sized businesses are also on the move. Whereas one company executive might have left in the past, now “they’re all going,” she said. Small companies are “taking the entire team and putting them into Singapore.”

Large companies are also relocating to Singapore, said Cynthia Ang, an executive director at the recruitment firm Kerry Consulting. She cited L’Oreal, Moet Hennessy and VF Corporation — the latter which owns brands such as Timberland and North Face — as examples, while noting there are more who haven’t made their decisions public yet.  

“We get more calls from our clients who are … sharing with us that they’re going to move the entire Asia Pacific office into Singapore,” she said.

Other companies are staying in Hong Kong, but downsizing their offices, and moving regional headquarters to Singapore, said Ang.

Australian Krystle Edwards said she’s lived in Hong Kong for 12 years and wants to stay, but she and her husband are going to decide whether to leave by September.

“If the situation looks like 2023 is going to be more of the same in Hong Kong — hotel quarantine restrictions, all that sort of stuff — we’re moving to Singapore,” she said.

“It gets to a point where it’s just too much.”

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