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Goodbye Hong Kong: Territory sees rise in prospective emigrants

Political qualms and bad living conditions drive young people overseas

Pro-independence supporters take part in a New Year's Day march in Hong Kong. Uncertainty over the territory's political future is one reason why many young residents want to leave.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- The number of young people looking to emigrate from Hong Kong is rising sharply, nearly 22 years after the former British colony was returned to China.

"I want to leave because Hong Kong is no longer what it used to be," said Jonathan Chan, a 24-year-old Hong Kong student at the University of British Columbia in Canada. "My plan is to get a master's degree in Canada, find a job, and start a new life."

Many other Hong Kongers share Chan's dream. According to a 2018 survey by Chinese University of Hong Kong, 51% of people between the ages of 18 and 30 said they are thinking about leaving the territory, up 5.5 percentage points from 2017.

Many respondents cited the frequent political protests, crowded living conditions and dissatisfaction with the ruling system as the main reasons to look for greener pastures.

Chan comes from a middle-class family, but despite having few financial worries, he is less than sanguine about the future. "I don't see how it's possible to be happy living in Hong Kong," he said.

These days, it is the better-educated residents who are looking to exit.

An official at Goldmax Immigration Consulting said that the number of requests for emigration advice is rising at about 20-30% annually. Clients are mainly in their 30s and 40s, but now even young married couples in their 20s are seeking advice, saying they want their children to study abroad.

According to Goldmax, Canada and Australia are the most popular destinations, followed by the U.K. and the U.S., all of which account for 80% of emigration requests. The official said that many are stressed over jobs and education in the territory. Political uncertainty is also driving more people to leave, the official said.

Life in Hong Kong turns extremely competitive upon entering elementary school and continues through college. After that, people find themselves stuck working long hours in jobs that leave most without the means to buy their own home.

According to research company Demographia, housing prices are 20.9 times higher than the average household's annual income in Hong Kong, compared with 3.9 times in the U.S. and 4.3 times in Canada. Among major cities, Hong Kong has been the most difficult in which to buy a home for the ninth consecutive year.

Despite this, the territory has been ranked as the third-best destination for millennials in Asia, trailing only Singapore and Tokyo, according to Singapore-based financial analysis ValueChampion. Hong Kong received good marks for low unemployment, but was rated poorly in terms of cost and quality of living.

About 1,270 Hong Kongers became permanent Canadian residents in 2017, more than double the figure from two years before, according to the Canadian government. It is estimated that 300,000 Hong Kongers have Canadian passports and increasing numbers of them want to leave the territory.

Political problems are not unique to China or Hong Kong. The U.S. has been cracking down on immigrants, and Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies, remains under arrest in Canada. Meanwhile, uncertainties over Brexit loom large in the U.K. Still, there has been no major change in emigrants' favored destinations, according to the Goldmax representative.

During the 1980s, when the U.K. and China began discussing Hong Kong's future and after the Tiananmen Square turmoil, many Hong Kongers moved abroad. Emigration also spiked in 1997 before the territory's handover to China.

The difference these days is that it is the young who want to leave. More than four years after the pro-democracy 2014 Umbrella Movement failed, Hong Kong's young have become increasingly concerned over China's restrictive economic and political policies.

"It feels like Canada is a place where the government cares about its people, whereas in Hong Kong, the government does useless things," Chan said. "And when people voice their disapproval, [the government] tends to spite them."

The Hong Kong government is trying to encourage innovation among younger residents to change an economy currently dependent on trade, finance and real estate. This looks increasingly to be an uphill battle as the territory's frustrated millennials carve out new lives overseas.

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