The pace of decline in Hong Kong’s population abated as the city moved to reopen after years of pandemic isolation.
The city’s population fell by a net 12,900 people in the second half of 2022, down from a decrease of 55,400 in the first six months, according to government data released Thursday. The previously announced population drop of 121,500 in the year ended June 30 was revised to a fall of 67,000, the data showed.
Since 2020, tens 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.
“The population decrease in the second half of 2022 has narrowed when compared to that in the first half, reflecting that movement of the Hong Kong population has begun to resume” gradually, a government spokesperson said in a release accompanying the data.
From the end of 2019 through 2022, the city’s population fell by about 187,300 or 2.5 percent, to 7.33 million. For the full year of 2022, the decline was 68,300.
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 percent 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,” Eric Fong, head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong, said before the data release. “They have been the majority in the labor market.”
Since August 2018, Hong Kong’s labor force has dropped about 5 percent to 3.8 million people, according to official figures from January.
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.
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.