Leaving Hong Kong isn’t the answer. Staying and building a new one is.

Chandran Nair | South China Morning Post
Since the implementation of the new national security law, there has been concern that some Hong Kong people may choose to leave the city. A few places are openly considering making it easier for Hong Kong people to move to their countries, with Britain – despite its government’s anti-immigration Brexit stance – going the furthest in expanding the rights afforded to holders of BNO (British National Overseas) status.
Despite commentary from foreign governments that these moves are motivated by a wish to help those involved in last year’s protests, in practice the outreach has mostly focused on attracting the city’s professional classes and thereby milking the predicted brain drain. Privately, many heads of professional bodies have expressed concern that young and talented Hong Kong people, such as lawyers, doctors, engineers and accountants, may choose to leave.
A young Hong Kong family may choose to leave for a variety of reasons. One reason, commonly highlighted by the media, is apprehension over how the national security law will be applied, given all the fear that is being generated by the global media. But there are other more practical reasons too. Last year’s social unrest was disruptive:families may choose to leave in search of stability – e.g., educating their children – regardless of how they felt about the protests themselves despite the various downsides of moving overseas.
A young Hong Kong family may choose to leave for a variety of reasons. One reason, commonly highlighted by the media, is apprehension over how the national security law will be applied, given all the fear that is being generated by the global media. But there are other more practical reasons too. Last year’s social unrest was disruptive:families may choose to leave in search of stability – e.g., educating their children – regardless of how they felt about the protests themselves despite the various downsides of moving overseas.
And then there’s the search for economic opportunity: high living costs and constrained social mobility mean that some Hong Kong people may think that they have a better chance to improve their quality of life somewhere else in the long term. In this calculation they are willing to pay the price of living in a less exciting place and even never being accepted as equals. The option to return is, after all, always there as has proven to be the case with so many who left before the handover in 1997.
Hong Kong is not alone in having a young population that is disillusioned and discontented with the status quo, marked by diminished social mobility, increased competition, higher cost of living, relatively low political representation and irresponsible politicians. The difference is that Hong Kong’s openness means that its young professionals can – or at least believe they can – find opportunities overseas. They will be neither the first nor the last to discover that the grass is not always greener elsewhere and hanker for home later in life, often with regrets.
In fact, Hong Kong has benefited from other countries’ brain drain in the past decade: see the large increase in the French population working in the city. Plus, there has always been the joke in Hong Kong of “FILTH”: “failed in London, try Hong Kong”.
The opposition sees a brain drain as proof that both the Hong Kong and central governments are “killing” the city, and so see little obligation to encourage people to stay with well-thought-through polices or constructive engagement with the government in the Legislative Council. Members of the establishment, in contrast, feel that those who want to leave are not Chinese patriots anyway and are easily replaceable with overseas or mainland Chinese talent. These are highly irresponsible positions to take.
This attitude confirms the worst suspicions each has of the other: that the opposition is more concerned with scoring political points overseas than doing what’s best for the city, and that the establishment is hyper-focused on Hong Kong’s status as a business hub over the interests of ordinary people and seeks to appease Beijing.
But we can all agree that the loss of a wide swathe of young professionals would be hugely damaging for the city. It would weaken the city’s “DNA”: qualities and characteristics that make the city an attractive and exciting place to live and work, both for residents and for expats. More importantly, the institutions that allow “one country, two systems” to thrive only survive if there are talented and committed people to staff and nurture them
More fundamentally, any society that allows this to happen is failing in its fundamental obligations to its people, especially the young. Even failed states do not actively pursue such outcomes.
Those currently in positions of power, responsibility and influence need to take actions now to encourage people to stay. The government needs to announce a vision for Hong Kong’s future, and fast, to counter the pessimism that is taking root within a segment of the population. It needs to be a vision that speaks to the young as they are the future of the city. They desperately need a vision that gives them a real stake in it, irrespective of economic class.
The news of the past year has been stressful, including the social unrest, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the reaction to the national security law. The government needs to provide compelling reasons why a Hong Kong person can be optimistic about the future; these reasons need to be backed by deeds, not just words. An obvious one is to announce a commitment to extending one country, two systems beyond 2047 and making that explicitly clear with details of what it entails.
And, in addition, if a foreign government can purport to offer a million passports, surely the Hong Kong government working in partnership with developers and the banks can make available a million homes and more to the needy by coming up with the world’s most innovative social housing scheme. All parties must do whatever it takes, given that this city has the resources to do so. There is a need once and for all to break with the past on this issue and, if needed, brush aside every rule in the book that stands in the way of addressing this most critical of challenges. If not now, then when? This one sweeping action will get the government the full backing of the public, not to mention even Beijing.
With that, prominent politicians from all camps, including the establishment, the opposition and those related to the protest movement, need to articulate a clear message of “stay and build”. This requires the various political camps to outline their vision for Hong Kong and what it should look like: a purely unrealistic and negative message would be the height of irresponsibility and may drive people to leave, whereas a realistic and positive policy platform will give people reasons to stay and push for change in a constructive manner. Therein lies the hard but meaningful work of politics and policy formulation.
The private sector too could play a very constructive role. For example, many potential entrepreneurs and young professionals say that Hong Kong’s high cost of living and start-up costs (such as land, rents, hiring talent, importing technology, and R&D costs) make founding a new business risky. Thus, people focus on potentially stable careers like law, accounting or medicine, in turn increasing competition and constraining mobility. Hong Kong’s leading companies and financial institutions, perhaps through an independent community investment fund, could establish mechanisms to help budding entrepreneurs and others establish themselves, providing a necessary cushion for new enterprises in sectors like health care, biotech and even high-end manufacturing. There is no better place than Hong Kong to initiate such a scheme and there is no better time than now to creatively set up such a fund, given the additional prospects arising from the Greater Bay Area.
But ultimately this message needs to be carried by the broader Hong Kong society.
Hong Kong faces many challenges, from diminished social mobility and rooted vested interests to sustainability concerns and, yes, a lack of political representation. But these problems will be solved only by those who decide to stay, not by those who leave. After all, the vibrant economy that has been Hong Kong since the handover was built by those who stayed and not those who left. The next generation now needs to be incentivised and inspired to stay and build a different economic and social fabric, given the dramatic shift in conditions. Leaving will not accomplish that.
In addition, the things that make Hong Kong successful – its education system, its rule of law, its entrepreneurial spirit,– can be sustained only if young professionals stay and work to manage and improve it. The older generation has clearly failed to build a socially equitable society and it’s time for the next generation to chart a new path for the city and that requires breathing new life into the city’s politics that is meaningful and rooted in the art of pragmatic compromise. If these things are abandoned, then Hong Kong – and its autonomy under one country, two systems – will struggle.
Finally, Hong Kong will be able to capture opportunities, ranging from the Greater Bay Area to turning the city into a global sustainable hub, only if people stay.
Those who care about the city should recognise that “the better future” they seek requires a commitment to staying and building. Leaving in haste often leads to years of yearning for what might have been and the missed opportunity to be part of something new.
If Hong Kong is to fulfil its obligation to its population and especially the next generation, present-day society needs to focus on retaining its most talented and do everything needed to make them build their future here.
They, like every next generation anywhere, have to be allowed the opportunity to flourish, realise their dreams, make mistakes, be demanding at times and build the future they want.
Those who care about Hong Kong – on both sides of the political divide – need to recognise this fact, stop the bickering and instead focus their efforts on encouraging people to stay and build the fairer city it needs to be.
It requires discarding destructive politics and reforming the laissez-faire economic policies of the past that have failed the current generation.