The Exodus of Hong Kong

I collected these news clippings a while back on another site I made.  Here they are again.

It has been estimated that nearly one-sixth of the population of Hong Kong had emigrated between 1984 and 1997.

 The beginnings

Even before China showed its true face in the Tiananmen Massacre, Hong Kong people were already highly concerned about the looming handover: (Philiadelpha Inquirer, 20 Nov 1988)

Nine years remain before China assumes sovereignty over entrepreneurial Hong Kong. But despite the Chinese-British agreement to retain the territory’s economic, legal and political systems for at least 50 years after the takeover, many of the best and the brightest are taking no chances.

Their exodus has begun.

Although no precise emigration figures exist, the net outflow of people from Hong Kong has leaped from 13,500 in 1986 to 27,000 in 1987, and it is expected to be higher this year.

The outflow of skilled employees from Hong Kong led to a massive brain drain, with many companies finding hiring impossible.

When Leong, the insurance executive, lost a claims assistant, he advertised for three weeks and did not receive one application. So he upgraded the position to assistant claims manager and increased the pay but still got no applications.

“We are constantly losing people to Australia and Canada, and we can’t replace them,” Leong said. “So the only thing we can do is move up unqualified people. We have no choice. It’s second-grade quality work. And if it deteriorates further, I don’t know what’s going to happen.

“We train, we lose, we train, we lose. I don’t know when it will end.”

The issue of the Hongkongese exodus was discussed in the British House of Lords on 23 March 1989, in the context of the extent to British nationality rights for Hong Kongers:

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

After 1997 we shall be helpless to intervene. Hong Kong residents will have no means of preventing Beijing interpreting and modifying the agreement or the new Basic Law. It will be quite diffferent if a significant number of those essential to the administration and commerce of Hong Kong had a passport enabling them to live elsewhere if things went wrong.[…]

With no such safeguard in sight, a disturbing brain drain has already begun. Thirty thousand residents left Hong Kong in 1987 going mainly to Canada, Australia and the USA. Forty-five thousand residents went in 1988.[…]

Until we changed the law in 1962, the Hong Kong Chinese and Hong Kong citizens were British subjects with an absolute right to live and work here and become United Kingdom citizens. It is not their fault that alarm at the growth of coloured immigration from countries which had demanded, and achieved, independence from us made us remove those ancient rights from Hong Kong citizens.[…]

However, as 1997 approaches, anxieties are mounting. Usually in Hong Kong strikes and disputes are unheard of. But during the last month there have been four: a strike of mini-bus drivers in protest against the police; a taxi drivers’ strike; a dispute of doctors and nurses over pay and working conditions. That sounds familiar to us but it is extremely unusual in Hong Kong.[…]

Lord Fanshawe of Richmond

I wish to quote briefly from the leading article in The Times on this issue on 13th January 1989. The article states: “If Chinese rule should prove oppressive after 1997, Britain’s doors will be closed to most of Hong Kong’s 3.5 million British nationals. Their passports do not give them the right to reside in the United Kingdom. But in recognition of their special vulnerability, ministers have discretion to issue passports to members of Hong Kong’s administrative and security services. Yet of the modest 700 who have applied, all but 54 have been refused.” […] Britain has political and moral obligations to Hong Kong. There is, rightly, a feeling in Hong Kong that we are not meeting them.

Lord Geddes

Some noble Lords may remember the amendment that I had the privilege of proposing on 13th October 1981 to the then British Nationality Bill. It read, somewhat appropriately for this afternoon’s Question: Every person who under this Act is a British Citizen, a Citizen of the British Dependent Territories or a British Overseas Citizen shall have the status of a British National”. I admit to a feeling of considerable disappointment that that amendment was defeated, albeit extremely narrowly in a very full vote, by 105 to 102.[…]

The Government have made it abundantly clear that they consider that the future of the people of Hong Kong is safeguarded by the joint declaration and the basic law, together with the discretionary power to grant British citizenship under Section 4(5) of the British Nationality Act 1981. I do not think that this is the occasion to debate the merits and shortcomings of that document. What is clear, however, and has already been mentioned this afternoon, is that the people of Hong Kong do not appear to agree with the Government and they are voting with their feet.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

It is far too easy to say that those who are able today, by moving, to acquire a Canadian passport after three years’ residence, or an Australian passport after two years’ residence, will duly return to Hong Kong with their families and with their new insurance policies in their back pockets. In some cases that may be. However, it is beyond doubt that Hong Kong is suffering and will continue to suffer a serious and permanent loss of human capital.

Unfortunately, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Lord Glenarthur, flatly dismissed all the above expressed concerns and stuck to the illusion that Hong Kong would be protected under the Joint Declaration:

It has also been argued that our policy on passports indicates that we have reneged on our responsibilities towards Hong Kong people. That may not have been addressed in quite those words this afternoon but it is, nevertheless, a theme which has developed over time and I tell your Lordships that those suggestions are far from the truth, as was the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Fanshawe that we were dancing to the Chinese tune, if I have his words right. All our efforts and success in negotiating the joint declaration, and now in securing its faithful implementation, would have been in vain if it were not now our intention to uphold our responsibilities towards Hong Kong.


Los Angeles Times, 7 June 1989

Some Hong Kong investors also are inquiring about American real estate in the wake of reports that prices of some real estate in Hong Kong have dropped as much as 20% in recent days.

“It’s amazing how fast it’s happened,” said Clifton K. Chang, a partner at Altair Investment Co., a Los Angeles real estate development and investment firm. He noted that some Hong Kong investors flew here just in the past two days to investigate commercial properties in Southern California.

The Glasgow Herald, 20 June 1989

A new Hong Kong could be created on the west coast of Scotland to provide the colony’s residents with a haven from the Chinese takeover, according to a radical plan put forward yesterday. Coastal sites in Wales or Cumbria are other possible options for a new colony, says the right-wing think tank the Adam Smith Institute. It says Britain has a moral responsibility to help those among the 3,200,000 [BDTC] passport holders frightened that recent events in Beijing may be repeated after the 1997 handover.

New York Times, 22 October 1989

Since the Beijing massacres on June 4, Hong Kong has become a city frightened of its future and obsessed with one date – July 1, 1997, when Britain is to return its colony to China. The city of almost six million is increasingly torn between those who already have a foreign passport or can obtain one, and the 60 percent or so who cannot afford to leave or are unwanted elsewhere.

Hong Kongers are pursuing the possibility of flight with the same diligence they show in making money. Banks and financial institutions are concocting ways to snare passports for their senior staff. Smooth-talking representatives from Singapore, Fiji, Thailand, Canada come offering foreign travel documents – for a price. A glitzy shopping mall recently became the scene of a near-riot when some 30,000 people scrambled to get application forms for permanent residence in Singapore. Even American Congressmen such as Stephen Solarz have joined in, visiting the colony with proposals to admit more Hong Kongers to the United States.[…]

“I felt so humiliated,” she told me. “I was born under British rule and I grew up as a Hong Kong Chinese – Chinese but different. We want to stay that way, that is what this whole thing is about. But I keep conjuring up this image of proud Hong Kongers shuffling around the globe, searching for a place that will take them in. I feel so humiliated.”[…]

“I feel trapped and afraid,” he says. “I came to Hong Kong to get away from the communists. And now they are coming. Before, I thought they had changed, but now I see they haven’t.” He repeated this to his friends in Chinese. Everyone nodded.

New York Times, 16 May 1990

In the latest triumph of Hong Kong ingenuity, and the latest sign of Hong Kong’s desperation, hundreds and possibly thousands of pregnant women are traveling to Western countries to give their babies what is regarded here as one of the most important things in the world: a foreign passport.

”In Hong Kong, when people ask you where you are going to have your baby, they don’t mean which hospital,” said Frank Ching, a writer and local newspaper columnist. ”They mean which country.”[…]

Pessimists are drawing parallels with the surrender to Communism of Shanghai in 1949 and Saigon in 1975. They expect a mounting frenzy to leave, a surge in corruption as people try to buy a new future, and a social breakdown as the civil service abandons its loyalty to the lame-duck British administration.[…]

Residents are emigrating at the rate of more than 1,000 a week, more than twice the rate in 1986. The obsession with emigration has spawned a new magazine, The Emigrant, as well as books and counseling services to help Hong Kong Chinese obtain foreign passports.

In one of the most unusual cases, a few people even paid about $5,000 each as a down payment on a passport from Corterra, which a brochure and advertisement identified as a South Pacific nation. They discovered too late that there is no such country.[…]

The official, a Briton who regards Hong Kong as his home, added glumly: ”And I don’t think that the real panic has set in yet. That’s still ahead of us.”

CNN, 26 June 1995

It’s time to stop pretending. Supposedly, Britain’s handover in less than 750 days of Hong Kong, the world’s most aggressively pro-business economy, to China, the world’s largest still officially communist dictatorship, is going to be a nonevent. Like the loyal retainers in the tale of the emperor who wore no clothes, Chinese and Western dignitaries continue to insist–despite growing evidence to the contrary–that, as Lord Young, chairman of British telecommunications giant Cable & Wireless, declared recently, “the best years for Hong Kong lie ahead.” In fact, the naked truth about Hong Kong’s future can be summed up in two words: It’s over.

[…]Meantime, fearing the worst, some 500,000 Hong Kong Chinese, or about 8% of the local population, have already voted with their feet and fled to other lands in the past decade. Among those who remain, the debate these days is not over whether Beijing will let Hong Kong run itself but over how best to cope with the certainty of its political interference. Essentially, the elite of Hong Kong have polarized into three camps: liberals who openly support greater democracy; active collaborators with China; and–probably the largest group–straddlers who advocate an ostrichlike strategy of sticking to business as usual and avoiding any action that might upset Beijing.

(“Just give me a passport” by Wong Jim)

Settling for second-best: the BNO

New York Times, 1 April 1996

Yau Sui-chun, who turns 62 this month, was the last of the 54,178 Hong Kong residents to file on Sunday for status as British overseas citizens by the formal midnight deadline.

As she pushed her application across a plain wood table under the glare of television lights, she ended a final week of mounting clamor by more than 100,000 Hong Kong residents to register as citizens of a British Dependent Territory.

Each day, for the last week, tens of thousands of people, anxious over China’s increasing intrusions into Hong Kong affairs, camped in the rain, stood in interminable lines and at times engaged in scuffles over line-jumping, all to sign up for this tenuous sort of British identity — an identity they hope will provide some security after China retakes this colony on July 1, 1997. Despite Beijing’s assurances of autonomy, many here are deeply afraid of what will happen then, and their fears have grown with recent Chinese intrusions into Hong Kong’s democracy.[…]

When reminded that the government that will be set up by Beijing will issue its Special Administrative Region passports, Mr. Wong waved his hand. “These passports are better,” he said.

Although China has publicly promised Hong Kong that it will, in China’s words, “enjoy a high degree of autonomy,” confidence in China’s assurances has waned in recent months.[…]

“It is not Hong Kong people who will rule Hong Kong,” [Martin Lee] said, after leading a protest on Sunday against Beijing’s plans for the territory. “It is Beijing puppets put into this election committee for the new chief executive who will rule Hong Kong.”

But it was the line in Hong Kong’s Wanchai district, which snaked away from the Immigration Tower to a sports stadium rented as a holding area, that provided the starkest sign of Hong Kong’s mood.

As the evening drew to a close, 130,134 people had applied for the quasi-British passports in the final week, more than in the previous four years.

Beijing’s representatives here tried to dismiss the rush for passports as a vote of no confidence in China’s rule.

(Conditional) return

New York Times, 14 February 1997

“I’ve been here almost three years but I don’t feel like a Canadian at all,” said Betty, who did not want immigration officials to know her last name, or the name of her husband, because they do not yet have their passports. She was dining at the Victoria, but did not join the other women in mah-jongg, an ancient game like dominoes, because she finds their display of wealth vulgar. Besides, she does not expect to be in Vancouver much longer. Like many of the 110,000 Hong Kong Chinese who came here over the last decade to escape the uncertainty in Hong Kong, Betty now dreams of going back, once she has the protection of a Canadian passport.[…]How strong Vancouver’s Chinese community can be is uncertain, Ho said, because every Chinese family already knows someone who has gotten a Canadian passport and returned home. Many more may go back depending on what happens July 1.

But Ho said he is not at all concerned about the rapid approach of that fateful day. “I already know what will happen,” he said over a dinner of braised ox tongue with spaghetti and Chinese soup at one of the many Hong-Kong style cafes that make parts of Vancouver seem like Hong Kong.

“Like any other July 1, we’ll all be at home watching television or out in the street celebrating.”

July 1, he noted, is Canada Day.

Asia Sentinel, 7 September 2011

Hong Kong emigrants who fled the city for fear of Communist rule and subsequently returned to their place of origin realize they were deluded by a superficial calm.[…]

Now, fourteen years have passed since the handover. Returnees have watched with their own eyes how fast Hong Kong has been speeding down the degradation highway, in terms of the freedoms they were used to in colonial days and the administration’s respect for civic rights, the robustness of the legal system, and the restraint exercised by the police force in times of turmoil. Instead of seeing “one country, two systems” being played out, they are witnessing that promise turned into tatters, with mainland’s master-slave mentality and paternalistic governing style replacing civilized, rational and open governance that is grounded in Hong Kong’s core values.[…]

It is a matter of when those who were in the “return tide” will start questioning whether it is worth their while to linger on in the place they returned to. The worst fears that had taunted them over two decades ago are all of a sudden very real. But they are still the luckier ones because they have a choice.


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