Quartz (brought to you by the 1950s tailfins-stylists Cadillac, among other cool and hip mega-corporations) delivers not the first, not the last, report on Hongkongers fleeing the encroaching grip of the Chinese Communist Party.
The Leaving of Hong Kong is as much a part of the local traditional culture and lifestyle as dim sum, quick money or Below Lion Rock. The city was founded for merchants on the make, it attracted transients (many later banished as unwelcome), and it was the departure point for impoverished Chinese on one-way trips to the mines and plantations of distant continents. For much of its colonial history, plague, riots and war convinced residents of all backgrounds to move on rather than settle. Government policy in the 1950s and 60s was to keep public services meager in order to make refugees feel not-at-home. In the 1980s and 90s, uncertainty about the resumption of Chinese sovereignty prompted the departure (often temporary) of around half a million of the middle class seeking the security of an overseas passport.
Since the handover, globalized professionals have loudly ‘left Hong Kong’ because of the air, or their kids’ schooling, or some other intolerable feature of life here. Curiously, they usually have a nice new job awaiting them elsewhere. Others often pronounce themselves on the verge of quitting, but never quite get round to sacrificing the low taxes and high salaries for the spacious and pristine surroundings of other locations.
This particular trend of expats/returnees being driven away is largely apocryphal, and probably exaggerated by foreign chambers of commerce with their own agendas. I can think of a couple of examples of people who clearly left with great reluctance, and in both cases it came down to housing. They were smart and productive non-millionaires with families to accommodate; regional cities with more foresight welcome them, while Hong Kong thinks it’s clever making a quick buck by selling homes to money-laundering outsiders to keep empty. In the grand scheme of things, the impact is probably marginal, but it’s a sign of corrupted housing policy priorities and does not bode well.
While housing affordability (and air quality, and no doubt other factors) have been deteriorating, the last few years have also brought post-1997 political contradictions to a head. Probably suspicious of the national repercussions for more representative government in Hong Kong, Beijing has driven the city’s political reforms into a ditch. Nothing personal: Xi Jinping’s no-nonsense clampdown applies everywhere – to the Internet, corrupt military/officials, potential rivals, academia, the law, Tibet, Xinjiang, foreign TV, cleavage on domestic TV, and so much else. To Hong Kong, it arguably or potentially points to broken promises on governance, intimidation of opponents, brainwashing in schools, pressuring of media and legal process and ultimately decline. Which naturally raises questions about whether we should go somewhere else, and if so, where?
The Quartz article echoes some recent chatter about Taiwan as a refuge for Hong Kong people (bottom line: better and slower lifestyle, but limited economic opportunities, and it too has a date with the Communist motherland). It also mentions South Korea, which sounds improbable, given the Hermit Kingdom’s unfathomable language and xenophobia. Korean pop culture is probably the superficial attraction – even I’ve tried the trendy-in-Seoul fake-retro-nostalgia Army Base Stew with 1950s US military Spam that has become fashionable here for no reason at all.)
Quartz also mentions Malaysia, which has some definite attractions in terms of balance between affordability and general levels of civilization (amazing food, at least). Less appealing in terms of this balance are Thailand and the Philippines, which are cheap but not coincidentally poor, corrupt and potentially scary. At the other end of the scale is Singapore, and most right-thinking people would sooner slash their wrists – things aren’t that desperate. For the daring, there are abandoned villages in Japan begging for newcomers. (We’ll skip the more distant alternatives like Canada, Oz, etc on the assumption that the Western world is doomed, as we are so often told, though the levels of visa applications from Greater China and elsewhere in the region suggest that not everyone is convinced about the joys of the forthcoming Asian Century.)
The different factors – affordability, quality of life, etc – are too varied and personal to measure objectively. Having kids must make a massive difference, as does the portability of one’s job/income. Where it gets really perverse is that, by some calculations, greener and better-planned bits of the Pearl River Delta on the Mainland look far more appealing than Hong Kong.
As I say, this won’t be the last story on this theme. Speaking of which…
Same theme, new ‘theme’
It’s Monday morning. Peering through the murky, post-weekend blur, something seems sort of different – but you can’t work out exactly what it is. To put everyone out of their misery: this site has a new look. (In tech-speak, it is a new ‘theme’.) This is thanks to a miraculous scientific breakthrough allowing a fun picture-of-the-week at the top of the page, just like in the very old days from 2002-09 when everything was ever-so-backward. Otherwise, it’s all the same.