Hong Kong’s middle class is leaving, amid a city-wide clampdown on political dissent and a patriotic education program being introduced in schools at the behest of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), according to immigration and property consultants.
Professionals in those industries are reporting that interest in emigration is at its highest level since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
The first wave of high-profile exiles were mostly activists involved in the 2019 protest movement against the erosion of Hong Kong’s promised freedoms.
Opposition politicians and outspoken activists started to join them after the CCP imposed a draconian national security law on the city from July 1, 2020, banning public criticism of the governments of Hong Kong and China, as well as any form of overseas fund-raising by politicians and activists.
Now, professional families are joining them, many of them spurred by the “national security education” program imposed by the government on schools, and curbs on liberal studies and freedom of expression in the classroom.
Midland Immigration Consultancy has told journalists that interest from clients seeking overseas property has almost doubled in the past two years, with property investments a popular way to obtain residency.
The U.K., Canada, Australia and Taiwan have also announced varying degrees of streamlining and support for applicants seeking residency and a path to citizenship in the wake of the crackdown on the protest movement and on opposition politics.
Canada, UK, Australia
The U.K. issued some 310,000 British National Overseas (BNO) passports to eligible applicants in 2020, twice the number issued in the previous year.
Around 27,000 people have applied for a new visa to live, work and study in the U.K., with a potential pathway to citizenship after six years, according to the U.K. government.
Midland Realty, Centaline Property and Ricacorp Properties are also expanding their immigration consulting services to meet demand, Japan’s Nikkei news agency reported.
Irish immigration consultancy Bartra Wealth Advisors also opened a Hong Kong office in August 2019, during the height of the protests, the report said, while Chiyo Japan Estate, says it has been getting around 30 immigration-related inquiries a month from Hongkongers looking to emigrate to Japan.
Jean-Francois Harvey, the global managing partner of Harvey Law Group, which also operates an immigration consultancy, said the numbers of clients just keeps rising, tripling since the 2019 protests.
Currently, the most favored routes out of Hong Kong are Canada’s Entrepreneur Visa (SUV), the U.K.’s BNO visa, and Australia’s 188C Significant Investor Visa (SIV)., Harvey told RFA.
“Two years ago, my clients were usually men over 50 with a family, and their children were usually older than 16,” Harvey told RFA. “A lot has changed during the past year.”
“Now, my clients are in their forties with not much difference between genders, and we are seeing more young families with kids younger than 10,” he said. “This has been the biggest difference.”
Fleeing the national security law
While clients were previously mostly concerned with making wise investments to secure future wealth, now they are mainly motivated by the need to get away from the impact of the national security law on their children’s education, Harvey said.
Polly Ho, another lawyer with the Harvey group, said most emigrants are now professionals, middle-class or above, who fear a worsening environment in the city’s education system.
They are keen to send their children overseas as soon as the visas are approved, choosing to wait until later to sell their properties in Hong Kong.
She said even people with a criminal record are allowed to apply for some routes, depending on the nature of the crimes they were convicted of.
“You aren’t precluded from emigrating to Canada just because of a criminal record,” Ho said. “It depends what the crime was, when you committed it, and whether you have a repeat offense.”
Data from the Canadian Department of Immigration shows that Canada’s new special visa program attracted nearly 6,000 applications from Hong Kong residents between its launch in February and mid-May.
And applications to the Hong Kong police force for certificates of “no criminal record” rose to more than 15,000 in the first five months of 2021.
Reported by Gigi Lee, Cheng Yut Yiu and Lee Ying for RFA’s Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.