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How meaningful is the exodus from Hong Kong?

When I was in my early 20s, I spent a summer living and working in Taipei and Hong Kong. It was a wonderful experience. I’ll never forget my apartment in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay. It was a small single room with a small bed and an even smaller bathroom. The bed didn’t fit me — at all — and my legs would hang over the bottom of it. I couldn’t stop hitting my shins on the bottom of the frame at night. The bathroom didn’t have a dedicated shower, just a hose coming out of the wall. So everything would get wet. It also took me 15 minutes the first morning I showered to figure out how to make the water hot. Eventually I got it.

Despite all this, I remember being enchanted with Hong Kong. Here was this tiny little place with very little developable land that had managed to become, through trade, finance, real estate and other things, one of the wealthiest places in the world. Capitalism! I could also feel the connection to Toronto. Hong Kong has one of the largest Canadian expat communities in the world. In fact, I ran into one of my high school math teachers in a bar in LKF. That was wild. He had moved there with his wife to teach. I suppose because of all of this, I have tended to follow the region a bit more closely.

Last July, the British government promised a path to citizenship for the 3 million or so Hong Kong residents who hold or are eligible for a British National Overseas passport. This passport, as I understand it, was given to citizens at the time of the 1997 handover. Though I don’t know how utility was actually derived from it over the years. Before last year’s announcement, this document didn’t include the right to stay in the UK. However, now it does. And the UK government expects that some 300,000 Hong Kong residents are going to take advantage of this in the first five years of the program. And indeed, according to the Financial Times, 2020 was the first year since SARS back in 2003 that the region lost people — it had a net outflow of about 39,800 people.

What will this mean for Hong Kong? Well, Bank of America estimated earlier this year that capital outflows from Hong Kong could reach £25 billion in the first year of the program. But maybe this is being too conservative. Here in Canada, capital outflows from Hong Kong hit a record last year at C$43.6 billion. But this too could be an underestimation, as it doesn’t include transfers below C$10,000 and probably a bunch of other transfer methods. How much money is actually flowing outward?

This weekend the Financial Times published the above survey results showing sentiment around leaving Hong Kong. Surveys are, of course, a funny thing. Saying you might probably potentially do something is a lot different than actually doing something. But for what it’s worth, about a quarter of pro-democracy supporters (which is maybe half of the population?) responded by saying that, yes, they would be prepared to leave. If you include those who responded no, but that they would reconsider and leave if things got worse, the number increases to about 70%.

I don’t know how meaningful all of this becomes for Hong Kong. Time will tell. But it has me thinking about my tiny bed and tiny shower in Causeway Bay.

Image: Financial Times

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