Sat, October 16, 2021

international

Talent, funds continue to exit Hong Kong amid Covid-19 pandemic


HONG KONG - Moving to Hong Kong was a "no brainer" for Mr Bryan James when he was choosing where to relocate to from the United States three years ago.

Now that he has completed his master's degree, the 40-year-old American, who declined to use his real name, decided to move back home as there "are better prospects".

"The US economy is recovering, frankly, it's booming right now. There're tons of jobs," said Mr James.

"Given the current geopolitical climate, it doesn't really seem like a wise time to be doubling down on China."

While the national security law implemented in June last year "made it very clear that leaving is the right decision", it was the Covid-19 pandemic that made him reconsider his future.

"I don't think that the zero-case approach is practical in the new environment, certainly not with the low vaccination rates that are here.

"I just don't see a way back to normal here with respect to the Covid-19 restrictions."

The pandemic also took a toll on a Singaporean expatriate in the legal profession who is leaving Hong Kong for good soon.

The 30-year-old, who wished to be anonymous, said the pandemic made it difficult for her to travel back and forth between Singapore and Hong Kong.

The territory has some of the toughest border controls and mandatory quarantines of up to 21 days.

"I feel safe about the low Covid-19 rate here and I'm glad we can resume a lot of activities in Hong Kong, and that must be partially attributable to the zero-Covid-19 policy and strict quarantine measures.

"But for an expat, on a cost-benefit analysis, the inability to freely travel back and forth weighs heavily for me," she said.

In the middle of last month, the Census and Statistics Department released data that showed nearly 90,000 people left Hong Kong in the past year - the highest since record-keeping started in 1961 - marking a 1.2 per cent decline in the population to 7.39 million people.

Between mid-2019 - when the often violent anti-government protests started - and the middle of last year, Hong Kong's population slid 0.3 per cent.

The government has said that the population decline does not necessarily reflect emigration.

"Net movement, which includes the movement of Hong Kong residents into and out of Hong Kong for various purposes including work and study, is conceptually different from immigration and emigration."

Still, the further drop coincided with the roll-out of the national security law. As at June, more than 100 individuals had been arrested under the law that criminalises subversion, secession, collusion with foreign powers and terrorism.

In January, Britain offered up to 5.4 million British National Overseas (BNO) visas to Hong Kong residents and their dependants, paving the way for citizenship. Late last month, the local media reported that 65,000 people had signed up for the scheme.

But the government soon after announced that a BNO passport would no longer be recognised as a valid travel document, or as proof of identity in Hong Kong, which meant it could not be used to support an application for early withdrawal of the mandatory savings.

Recent data from the Mandatory Provident Fund Authority showed that departing residents took out a record HK$6.567 billion (S$1.13 billion) from the pension fund in the 12 months till end-March, up 27 per cent from the previous year.

City University's Economics and Finance Professor Law Ka Chung reportedly said that the emigration wave could cost Hong Kong more than HK$60 billion or 2.3 per cent of its gross domestic product every year.

The brain drain, particularly of the young and capable, could deepen the next two years, further affecting the economy.

And while the pandemic might have made it physically harder for people to relocate, it has not stemmed the hollowing out of funds from the Asian financial hub.

An asset manager familiar with both the Singapore and Hong Kong finance scenes said the Singapore tax incentive for family offices have been a huge hit.

"The process (to set up one) normally takes three to six weeks, but the backlog is taking 12 to 16 weeks to process these days," he said.

The fund flows from Hong Kong to Singapore began in the first half of the year when the national security law was in full swing, the fund manager said, adding that "the flows ebbed a little these past months, but it's still a positive inflow into Singapore".

While the overall assets under management might have dropped as a result of the Chinese tech rout, he said "one can conclude that Chinese President Xi Jinping's new directive would be a catalyst to move away from Hong Kong and China".

Last month, Mr Xi gave a speech on tackling the huge wealth gap in the mainland, saying there needs to be wealth distribution and common prosperity to narrow the divide.

Published : September 19, 2021