After a decade-and-a-half in Hong Kong, New Zealand native Ian Jacob is calling it quits. The owner of a construction-materials company, Jacob and his wife were worried last year about the political unrest, especially after schools were temporarily suspended.
“We watched as the situation got worse and worse,” he said.
With classes suspended again amid the COVID-19 outbreak, the prospect of more home schooling for their 10-year-old daughter pushed them to take refuge in Auckland, New Zealand.
They plan to move back there for good once the school year ends in Hong Kong, Jacob said.
“It’s just becoming an unstable environment to raise a child in,” he said.
The debate about leaving Hong Kong — which began for many expatriates during the unrest of last summer and fall — has taken on a greater urgency with the spread of COVID-19, which has claimed many lives globally and caused companies in the financial hub to require employees to work from home.
Critics accuse Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s (林鄭月娥) government of mishandling the latest crisis compared with Singapore, which has kept schools open.
An exodus by expatriates such as Jacob could further damage an economy already reeling from the unrest and COVID-19, with visitor numbers plunging and unemployment rising.
Hong Kongers who come from elsewhere play outsized roles in finance, law and other service industries that make the territory a global business capital.
About 690,000 foreigners and non-Hong Kong Chinese live in the territory, accounting for about 9.5 percent of the population, according to the 2016 census. Half were from the Philippines and Indonesia, the main sources of domestic helpers, while about 35,000 were from the UK and 14,800 from the US.
The territory’s population at the end of last year fell 0.1 percent from a count in the middle of the year, the first decline in almost two decades, data released on Tuesday by the government showed.
There was a net outflow of Hong Kongers — excluding one-way permit holders from China — of 29,200 last year, compared with a net inflow of 23,000 in the 12-month period ending in the middle of last year.
Although there are no statistics on the number considering permanent moves, there is growing anecdotal evidence of a shift in sentiment among expatriates. Relocation companies are seeing a spike in inquiries about overseas moves, with growing predictions that the political stalemate is likely to lead to more instability.
As the territory combats the COVID-19 outbreak, the political situation “could well worsen in the days and weeks ahead,” risk consultancy Steve Vickers and Associates said in a Feb. 11 report.
There were at least 69 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Hong Kong as of yesterday, fewer than in Japan or Singapore, and two deaths.
That is enough to create widespread fear. Many employees are working from home and restaurants are struggling. Panic buying has emptied supermarkets, with bare shelves where toilet paper and hand sanitizer used to be.
Links International Relocation had a 45 percent increase in inquiries about moves in the second week of this month, compared with a year earlier, Hong Kong-based managing director Patrick O’Donnell said.
The government’s announcement on Feb. 13 that schools would remain closed until the middle of next month — at least — is likely to prompt more families to relocate, he said.
Typically the peak season for overseas moves is in June, yet springtime is starting to look busy, said Timothy Tao, Hong Kong-based business development director with relocation company Asian Tigers Group.
Inquiries have jumped in the past month, Tao said.
While there is strong demand for moves from Hong Kong, there is almost no interest in relocations to the territory, Asian Tigers Group Hong Kong CEO Robert Chipman said in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Wednesday.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Chipman, who has been in his position nearly 20 years.
Hong Kong is at risk of an exodus that could threaten the territory’s global status, the heads of the local British and French chambers of commerce said in a Feb. 12 letter.
“If the specific needs of international schools cannot be rapidly addressed, this will very likely trigger decisions of families [not just expatriates] to leave Hong Kong in the coming weeks,” wrote Rebecca Silli and Peter Burnett, chairs of the French and British chambers, respectively. “This would also have dramatic consequences on the international schools’ financial position, even to the point of putting at risk the continued operation of some.”
Still, many businesses and families are staying put, saying that they are confident that Hong Kong would remain a hub for multinationals. Among the optimists is two-decade resident Donna NguyenPhuoc, a partner with Sparq Capital, which works with family offices to coinvest in industries such as technology.
“A lot of people who are planning to move haven’t been in Hong Kong enough to see how resilient Hong Kong is,” she said. “If you have been here long enough, you realize Hong Kong will push through this as it has before.”
Other families are going elsewhere at least temporarily, as they wait to see what happens next.
Insurance industry executive Ruth Lu, who has children ages seven and 11, has rented a house with a pool on the Thai island of Koh Samui while schools are closed.
“We don’t even need to wear masks,” she said.
A native of China’s Jiangsu Province who has lived in Hong Kong for more than 20 years, Lu has no immediate plans to move, but the unrest has soured her on the territory.
“It’s not the old Hong Kong, like when I first arrived,” she said.
Several bankers interviewed by Bloomberg, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to comment, said that they have moved abroad with their families, at least until the outbreak subsides, and postponed making longer-term plans.
About three-fourths of the families with children at Chinese International School, a popular private school with more than 1,530 students, have provided information on their whereabouts, and about 20 percent of those reporting are outside Hong Kong, headmaster Sean Lynch said.
That is understandable, because the closure announcement came during the Lunar New Year holiday, when many families were away from home, Lynch said.
Some families are not counting on schools reopening next month. Betty Lai, born in Hong Kong, raised in Canada and married to a Briton, has gone to England and enrolled her two young children in schools in Suffolk. Her husband, a recruiter, can work from London, so the family plans on living there for now.
“We might end up staying for good if the situation in Hong Kong hasn’t settled by summer,” she said.
Departures that become permanent could hurt the territory’s competitiveness, American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong president Tara Joseph said.
“Once talent is lost from Hong Kong, it will be very hard to get it back,” she said.
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