Leaving Hong Kong – will China’s loss be Britain’s gain?

It’s Hong Kong’s middle class – not the hyper-wealthy – who may leave. But Britain may not be their preferred option.

Artillery Row

In 1949, Hong Kong was in a sorry state. Wartime Japanese occupation had smashed its industry and its wealth. Nor was the future looking much better. Across the border, the Communists, finally victorious in the Chinese civil war, were threatening to come and take back the British colony by force.

Things weren’t much better elsewhere on the mainland. As Chairman Mao’s columns advanced, thousands of families from Shanghai, the country’s richest city, packed up their houses and their businesses, and fled south.

They included people like Sir (as he later became) Yue-Kong Pao. A bank manager before the evacuation, he brought with him enough money to restart his life in Hong Kong, which he did by launching an import business and buying a twenty-eight-year-old coal steamer. Most Shanghainese who migrated to Hong Kong were engaged in textiles. They invested heavily in the colony, bringing with them not only capital, but more sophisticated management and technology.

It was this investment, allied with an influx of labour from other parts of China as hundreds of thousands fled the Communist armies, that turned Hong Kong from a broken-down entrepot into the industrial, and thereafter the financial, giant that it is today.

In a strange twist of fate, advancing Communist power may be about to give to Britain what it previously gave to Hong Kong seven decades ago. Dominic Raab’s offer to allow up to three million Hong Kongers to apply to settle in the UK has the potential to reinvigorate an economy well in need of a post-pandemic pick-up.

According to the IMF’s 2019 figures, Hong Kong’s GDP per capita is the fourteenth largest in the world, 20% higher than the UK’s, and all with a population about the size of Greater London.

Trade between the territory and its erstwhile rulers was worth £20 billion last year, which made Hong Kong the UK’s thirteenth largest trade partner. There are hundreds of British companies there, and the Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (to give its proper name) contributes significant profits to the UK’s largest bank, HSBC.

The connections aren’t one way, however. In recent years there has been a dramatic rise in investment from East to West. Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest man, has invested heavily in the UK, including last year’s £4.6 billion purchase of the brewery and pubs group Greene King. Thousands of Hongkongers own residential property in the UK, and at the commercial scale, some of London’s best-known buildings, such as the Walkie Talkie, are owned by Hong Kong companies. Of the thirty-six thousand Hong Kong students studying abroad, sixteen thousand of them – by far the largest cohort – are in the UK.

However, just because the links are strong, it doesn’t necessarily hold true that millions of Hongkongers will take up the Foreign Secretary’s offer. Far from it, because there are many more options than a country suffering from riots, economic uncertainty, and some of the worst Covid-19 results in the West.

Many, for instance, might prefer to move elsewhere in Asia – preferably a nation with a dominant Chinese ethnicity. Taiwan and Singapore are closer geographically, ethnically, and culturally, and so might make for a more natural new home.

Yet, for all such advantages, there are substantial reasons why this is unlikely. Hongkongers moving to Taiwan might worry they are migrating from the frying pan to the fire. In May this year, China’s Premier, Li Keqiang, dropped the word “peaceful” when referring to his country’s ambition to “reunify” with Taiwan, an apparent policy shift reflecting the downward spiral in relations with Taipei.

Singapore, whilst implausibly a military target for Beijing, is also unlikely to become home to millions of Hongkongers. The island nation, already once of the most densely populated on Earth, has strong links to both the United States and China, and no desire to antagonise either. The country made it clear in the middle of Hong Kong’s 2019 unrest that it had no intention of taking advantage of the disruption, and it is hard to imagine the policy changing now.

Instead, Canada and Australia are the more likely destinations. Both, along with the United States and the UK, were signatories to the joint statement reiterating their “deep concern regarding Beijing’s decision to impose a national security law in Hong Kong”. As their prime ministers have shown in recent months, they are also increasingly ready to stand up to Beijing’s bullying.

Canada and Australia are the more likely destinations

Emigration from Hong Kong to Canada and Australia is already high, and has been so for the last few years whilst the city’s unrest has gathered pace. Estate agents from Melbourne to Vancouver have noted a surge in interest, and it is a surge that could soon run even hotter. Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister, Chrystia Freeland, announced on 3 June that the 300,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong are “free to come home”.

Australia, home to more than 85,000 people of Hong Kong origin, has been more circumspect on the issue. Although Canberra has confirmed that it will “continue to welcome” Hong Kong residents, it won’t be drawn on calls for it to match the UK’s offer of safe haven. For all of Scott Morrison’s push-back on China, it is still Australia’s largest export market, and encouraging Hong Kongers to leave might be a step too far.

That said, how Beijing reacts to any mass exodus from Hong Kong will likely depend on who is doing the leaving. In 1949 it was Shanghai’s wealthiest families that left. This time it is different. Many of the leading Hong Kong families have created strong relationships with the mainland since 1997, and have intermarried with the elite there. It is hard to see these industrialists leaving Hong Kong en masse any time soon, even if they wanted to.

Instead, emigration is likely to be dominated by middle-class families who have enough money to leave, but not enough invested in Hong Kong to stay. In fact, the same people who make up a significant portion of the pro-democracy activists. If China wanted to keep the Hong Kong of today it probably wouldn’t be introducing oppressive new security laws – but by doing so, Beijing might clean out those they think of as undesirable.

Although the number of Hongkongers migrating to the UK is unlikely to be huge, with any luck some of those that do will replicate the impact that the Shanghainese had all those years ago on Hong Kong. Within two decades of buying his first ship, Sir Yue-Kong Pao had grown his business, World-Wide Shipping, into the largest shipping company in the world.

Hard working men and women dead-set on starting afresh and showing China what they are missing might be what a post-Brexit, post-Covid, UK needs right now. But it is up to Britain to persuade them that, of all the options available, this is where they will want to be.

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