[Hong Kong] Expats consider their future in wake of protests

After a summer of unrest and amidst a political crisis there is a growing concern among expats about Hong Kong’s stability, Gulf Times reports.

Hong Kong has become one of the world’s biggest financial and commercial hubs, thanks in no small part to the former British colony’s ability to assimilate people from around the world. But expatriates and their employers are concerned about the consequences of making ongoing commitments to a city experiencing its worst political crisis since the 1997 handover to China.

Fitch Ratings downgraded the city’s credit rating on Friday, giving the decline in Hong Kong’s international reputation as one reason for their belief that public discontent is likely to persist. This despite Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam withdrawing the extradition bill which incited the first demonstrations three months ago.

Police used tear gas in a populated area to disperse protesters who dismantled traffic lights and started fires on Friday, just a few hours after the Fitch statement was released. By Saturday, protesters reportedly had blocked one main road in the busy shopping and residential district Mong Kok and burned a barricade near the police station before hundreds of riot police drove them off.

Madeline Bardin is one of the expats in the city thinking increasingly about leaving. She is a 36-year-old entrepreneur who has loved life in Hong Kong for seven years but now worries that its summer of unrest will not soon pass. She checks chat groups and the news for reports of tear gas before going out with her 8-month-old son and cancelled a recent business trip over concerns that airport protests might prevent her from getting home.

“We have a young family to think about and we think this is just the beginning of the changes in Hong Kong,” said Ms Bardin, “Long term, it just doesn’t make sense for us to stay here with the rising instability.”

The departure of expats like her could cause a lot of damage to an economy that has the fourth-biggest stock market in the world and regional offices for hundreds of foreign companies.

Hong Kong had more than 650,000 foreign residents by the end of 2018 as well as over 1 million people from mainland China who have settled in the city of 7.5 million since 1997. Although Hong Kong’s government doesn’t publish comprehensive immigration statistics with enough frequency to assess the full impact of the 2019 unrest, there are indications that foreigners enthusiasm for the city is suffering.
Official figures show that applications for general employment visas dropped 7 per cent in August from those of a year earlier, after rising on an annual basis for the majority of 2019. The number of mobile residents - people who recently spent between one and three months in the city - fell 4.1 per cent in the first half, representing the biggest decline in a decade.

Online expat forums now feature threads debating whether it’s safe to let children take mass transportation, whether to leave Hong Kong to give birth and whether to move out of the city for good. Many show concern that Beijing is chipping away at the “one country, two systems” framework which grants Hong Kong freedoms unavailable in Communist China. The extradition bill would have placed both Hong Kongese and foreigners at risk of being sent to the mainland to experience what the US State Department refers to as China’s “capricious” legal system.

Lo Kin-hei - vice chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party - says Hong Kong’s status as “Asia’s World City” was based on “values that are eroding quickly as Beijing exerts more and more influence in Hong Kong, especially in recent years,” continuing, “If these values are gone, those names and status Hong Kong enjoys now will be gone forever.”

Hong Kong does have plenty of foreigners who retain a longterm commitment to it. Some people think that the turmoil has had minimal impact on their day-to-day lives and believe that Hong Kong will weather the storm in the same way it overcame Asia’s financial meltdown in the late 1990s and the SARS outbreak in 2003.

Others would prefer not to leave for economic reasons. In a survey conducted by recruitment platform HelperChoice, 45 per cent of the 982 Filipino domestic helpers questioned said they were worried about the protests but not worried enough to leave the city, where salaries are often far higher than those paid in the Philippines