Hong Kong New Census Data to Show If Exodus Is Finally Slowing

Hong Kong is trying to reverse a pandemic-fueled exodus of residents, with census data Thursday to show whether the reopening of the city has helped slow the population decline.

(Bloomberg) — Hong Kong is trying to reverse a pandemic-fueled exodus of residents, with census data Thursday to show whether the reopening of the city has helped slow the population decline.

The government will publish population figures for the year ended Dec. 31 at 4:30 p.m. local time. The most recent data, for the 12 months to June 30, showed the biggest drop in at least six decades.

Since 2020, hundreds of thousands of people have left as pandemic curbs and national security laws restricted activities. Among those who departed are the bankers, lawyers and other professionals that traditionally helped to make the city a freewheeling, international entrepot. The outflow is straining an already aging Hong Kong population and pushing up prices in the city’s main rival Singapore.

While leader John Lee focused on reopening the city since he came to power in July, the slow pace hindered its return to the global stage. Unlike other international centers, Hong Kong retained many Covid curbs for most of the second half of 2022, including the obligatory use of a tracing app, limits on where visitors could go and a mask mandate. The border with mainland China remained firmly shut until January this year, and international flights were constricted.

Efforts to revitalize the city will take time to bear fruit.

People who have left the city “might not settle down in other countries and come back,” said Paul Yip, chair of population health at the University of Hong Kong. “But it’ll take a couple of years to see that trend of migration.”

From the end of June 2020 through June 2022, the city’s population fell by about 216,000, or 2.8%, to 7.3 million.

Labor Force

There is urgency to boosting Hong Kong’s allure. The economy has shrunk for three of the past four years. Home prices plunged about 15% in 2022 in the biggest drop since the global financial crisis, according to a Centaline index. Businesses are struggling to find workers to meet increased demand as visitors start to return. Local residents have been leaving in droves, along with expats.

“It’s important to keep local talent,” said Eric Fong, head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong. “They have been the majority in the labor market.”

Since August 2018, Hong Kong’s labor force has dropped about 5% to 3.8 million people, according to the latest official figures.

Reviving the city’s status as a global financial center has national importance. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told Lee the city needs to consolidate its role as an international hub when he visited Beijing in December, while President Xi Jinping praised Lee for reviving the local economy and safeguarding national security. Continued population outflows would threaten to undermine that goal.

Hong Kong Seeks to Prove It Can Still Be ‘Asia’s World City’ 

Even as Hong Kong drops its pandemic curbs and reopens to the world, concern over the blurring of boundaries between the semi-autonomous city and mainland China is likely to endure. 

Schools are now required to celebrate National Security Education Day every April. The government said this week television and radio broadcasters using public airwaves in Hong Kong will be required to run programming on issues such as the security law.

With countries such as the UK, Australia and Canada making it easier for Hongkongers to emigrate, pressure on the local population may continue. More than 150,000 Hong Kongers have applied for the British National (Overseas) visa program since it announced in July 2020. The program offers a path to British citizenship.

“If you say the border is open and people will naturally come back, we may have to be careful about this kind of assumption,” Fong said. 

–With assistance from Kari Lindberg.

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