Hong Kong continues to hemorrhage people amid ever-widening political controls

Thousands more Hongkongers are continuing to leave the city than arrive, as the authorities warn that a national security crackdown will continue.
By Lu Xi and Raymond Chung
Hong Kong continues to hemorrhage people amid ever-widening political controls People pose for photos before departing to Britain at Hong Kong's International Airport, July 18, 2021.
Tens of thousands of people have left Hong Kong in recent weeks amid a citywide crackdown on dissent, a new emphasis on patriotic propaganda in the education system and the jailing or disqualification of most of its political opposition.

The city recorded more than 72,000 net departures of its permanent residents via the international airport from July 1 to Oct. 13, according to daily figures from the city's immigration department posted to the local financial information service Webb-Site.

While the net departure figures come at a time when a 21-day COVID-19 quarantine is in place for new arrivals, they continue a trend seen in the government's population statistics for the first half of 2021, which recorded a fall of nearly 90,000 in the city's permanent population.

In the biggest decline in the city's population since records began in 1961, Hong Kong saw a net outflow of 89,200 residents in the first half of the year, leading to a 1.2 percent drop in the city's population, the Census and Statistics Department reported in August.

While Hong Kong and Chinese officials have sought to play down the scale of the exodus, brushing aside the impact on the city's economic and professional life, state media organization CRNTT did acknowledge a link between the ongoing exodus from Hong Kong and a draconian national security law imposed on the city by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from July 1, 2020.

Many of those leaving are heading to the U.K. under a visa-to-citizenship route for British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders and their families.

Nearly 65,000 Hong Kong residents submitted an application for the visa in the first five months following its launch, with more than 70 percent approved by the end of June, the Home Office reported in September.

An estimated 5.4 million Hong Kong citizens are eligible to apply for a BNO visa. The U.K. government has estimated that 300,000 people will take up the offer in the first five years of the scheme.

Seeking employment

A survey of their employment situation by the advocacy group Hongkongers in Britain (HKB) found that while 70 percent have at least a first degree and more than 10 years' work experience, many say they are applying to blue-collar jobs including transportation and hospitality, where vacancies are currently high in the wake of Brexit and the pandemic.

So far, just one in three have secured a job, in a process that takes up to three months, but sent no more than 10 applications before they were successful, a labor survey by HKB found.

"The recent Hong Kong arrivals are in general a mature and agile workforce that is ready to potentially add/bring high value to the U.K. labor market and economy," the report found, adding that they are "quite ready to fill in job vacancies not from their original work sectors."

"Many of the early arrivals are middle-class parents with children ... [who] saw the greatest need to leave Hong Kong as soon as possible (due to the political suppression of freedoms and education)," the report said.

Half identified the language barrier as an obstacle to finding work, while nearly 54 percent cited different workplace cultures, it said.

"Some of them are willing to take any job with vacancies, but the problem is that they have become over-qualified in the job market, especially for some larger employers," survey author R. Yeung told RFA. "Over-qualified job applicants don't even get to interview ... because employers feel that they are just looking for stepping stones and will leave soon."

HKB spokesman Julian Chan called on the British government to speed up the application process for National Insurance Numbers (NINO) and to provide clear guidelines to employers, chambers of commerce and other recruitment agencies to make sure they don't turn down Hong Kong applicants because they are unfamiliar with their visa type.

"The intervention measures we recommend require the cooperation of relevant government departments, employers, recruiters, and citizen groups concerned with employment and immigration," Chan said. "These measures should be implemented at the national, regional and regional levels to allow Hong Kong people to better integrate into the British employment market."

Heading to Taiwan

Hongkongers are also heading for the democratic island of Taiwan, prompting the authorities there to consider relaxing visa restrictions for those fleeing their hometown.

According to the latest figures released by the Taiwan immigration department, 10,813 Hong Kong residents were approved to travel to Taiwan in 2020, with residency permits issued to 1,576.

More than 6,000 Hongkongers traveled to Taiwan between January and August 2021, with residency permits issued to 1,162 of them.

Taiwanese premier Su Tseng-chang said "appropriate" measures would be used to help Hongkongers arriving in the country, while further changes could be up for consideration.

Su was responding to a report in Taiwan's Liberty Times newspaper claiming that the authorities are moving to relax restrictions on what people can do after they arrive.

"If they can relax some of the qualifications and restriction, I think it will be a huge help to many of our friends," ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lawmaker Liu Shih-fang told RFA. "There should be inter-ministerial coordination [to make that happen]."

Fellow DPP lawmaker Hung Shen-han agreed, saying the system has room for improvement.

"But I think the most important thing is our original intention [in welcoming Hongkongers], which is that Taiwan support the core democratic values of the international community," Hung said. "We have to help each other."

Bookseller Lam Wing-kei, who fled to Taiwan after being arrested in mainland China for selling political titles in Hong Kong, warned that applications should still be scrutinized for political leanings, however.

"It should also depend on the person's background and their reasons for applying to come to Taiwan," Lam said. "For example, they may be strongly pro-democracy, and made some contribution [to pro-democracy activism], or have taken part in the Hong Kong protest movement."

He said failure to screen applicants could result in infiltration by agents of the CCP.

On Oct. 6, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam vowed to extend a citywide crackdown on anyone trying to "destabilize" the city and oppose China, with new laws in the pipeline targeting the media and online service providers, as well as expanded definitions of "espionage" and "terrorism."

The national security law, which took effect on July 1, 2020, ushered in an ongoing and citywide crackdown on all forms of public dissent and political opposition, with election rules changed to ensure only pro-CCP candidates can run and dozens of former opposition lawmakers now behind bars on "subversion" charges.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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