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Monday, Jan 25, 2021

Stay or go? Hong Kong’s protest crisis raises career doubts for expats

Stay or go? Hong Kong’s protest crisis raises career doubts for expats

Half a year has passed since the city erupted into turmoil, exposing divisions over its future. In a new series, the South China Morning Post looks at the risks and rewards foreign professionals see in Hong Kong after a summer of unrest

For one long-time foreign resident of Hong Kong, the city’s violent anti-government street protests this year convinced her it was time to write down a worst-case scenario getaway list.

She noted down the essentials to grab if she needed to flee fast, put the list in a desk drawer in her flat, and found it brought some peace of mind.

“It’s a short list,” she said. “Just my mother’s jewellery, my passport, and some photos really.” But writing it down, she said, gave a sense of at least being somewhat ready if the conflict reached the point where she had to escape a city she has called home for 28 years.

The woman, who asked that her name not be used to discuss the protests, is one of the foreign residents that make up almost 10 per cent of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million population. Many are weighing the risks of staying in a city once known for its stability and now blighted by months of unrest.

But so far, there is no evidence of an exodus. Immigration figures show that 731,082 foreigners were living in Hong Kong in November 2018. A year later, the figure was 726,032. This includes domestic helpers, largely from the Philippines and Indonesia, who numbered around 400,000, according to the immigration data.

Foreign professionals working in the finance industry or running businesses in Hong Kong are confronting the “what if” questions about personal safety and protection of children as tear gas, bricks, rubber bullets, and firebombings replaced tourists and shoppers on the city’s streets.

Contingency plans and “red lines” differ by person and family, but many conveyed the same story of difficult discussions with a partner or family back home about what to do as the protests went from largely peaceful marches in June against a planned extradition law to pitched street battles between police and radical protesters.

One 33-year-old banker from New Zealand didn’t draw up an escape list, but after long talks with his wife, both decided to look for work elsewhere after four years in the city.

“Our view is that Hong Kong has fundamentally changed as a business centre,” he said, also requesting that his name not be used.

Leaving isn’t the plan for a South Korean-born stockbroker, 30, and his family. He and his Hong Kong-born wife have just had a baby whom they plan to bring up in Hong Kong. But while Hong Kong was the right place to be for his career, he did have a red line.

South Korea has a long history of student-led anti-government protests, including in the city of Gwangju in 1980 that led to a brutal military crackdown in which hundreds of people were killed.

“Unless something like that happens, I will stay in Hong Kong, but there is always a possibility – because we all know that China can make radical decisions,” he said, also requesting anonymity to discuss the issue.

Hong Kong’s protests began in reaction to the government’s proposal in February to amend laws that could have led to legal suspects being extradited to mainland China.

By June, an estimated 2 million people had taken to the streets in mostly peaceful protests against what they saw as a violation of Hong Kong’s autonomy under “one country, two systems”, a constitutional principle under which the city retains its own political, legal and economic systems for 50 years after the 1997 handover from British to Chinese sovereignty.

By July, the protests were turning into regular confrontations with police. On the first of the month – the 22nd anniversary of the city’s return to China – demonstrators stormed into and vandalised the government legislature building. Elsewhere during the month they blocked roads with makeshift barriers, police responded with tear gas, sponge grenades and rubber bullets and once-bustling shopping districts emptied.

In the following months, a general strike was called, protesters occupied the city’s airport for several days, two protesters were shot and wounded by live rounds fired by police officers during clashes, and an officer was slashed in the neck with a box ­cutter.

The extradition bill was eventually withdrawn but by then the demonstrations had morphed into broader calls for universal suffrage and other demands, which were rejected by Beijing.

November brought even more violence as metro stations and highway toll booths were firebombed, forcing school closures across the city. A third protester was shot and wounded by an officer. Protesters then occupied universities, leading to a siege in which a police officer was shot in the leg by an arrow.

The features that attracted many foreign professionals to Hong Kong – safety, stability, and leisure – took a massive hit. With Hong Kong one of the world’s leading financial centres, attractive salaries and opportunities now had to be balanced against instability and violence.

“The jury is still out. Christmas will be interesting, many people will travel back to their families and there will be discussions about ‘what do we want, what do we do’,” said Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

For others, decisions have already been made. One resident, an American army veteran, said he was unwilling to live in a place where “violence [is] condoned” and planned to move to Singapore.

“I don’t want my kid to live in a place of fear and I don’t want my wife to live in a place of fear,” said the executive, 39, a US national who was born in Hong Kong.

“If you take two different political systems there’s bound to be a reconciliation and this will take time. I personally don’t have the time to participate in it…. It’s not part of my fight.”

Most foreign professionals interviewed said they understood the opposition to the extradition bill and supported the calls for democracy by the protesters, but not the violence and vandalism. Others cited concerns about how the protests were being handled by government and police. All felt uncertainty.

Anurag Bhatnagar, president of the Forum of Indian Professionals Hong Kong, moved to Hong Kong from India in 1995 and has seen several periods of mass protests since then.

“What I was surprised by, though, was the violence – how things took a violent turn,” Bhatnagar said, adding that his views were his own, not the organisation’s.

The career commodities trader and tech venture founder said many in his circle were concerned about the demonstrations and frustrated by the government’s lack of engagement.

“At the end of the day, every expatriate who moved to Hong Kong has moved for better opportunity for themselves, professionally, personally, and for their families. When the future is uncertain, politically, of a particular place, people start questioning that decision,” he said.

As many businesses are hurt by the unrest, moving companies are reporting an uptick in inquiries and expect a busier 2020. In many cases, the protests were the tipping point for a move, not the cause, said Lars Kuepper, managing director of moving company Relosmart.

“It’s not really because of the protests, but this is the trigger – they have thought about leaving for some time because of the cost of living and education for the children, but the latest developments in Hong Kong made their decision final,” he said.
The company handled 125 relocations in October, double the number a year earlier, and about half of those were moves by foreign residents, he said.

“We are working seven days a week now,” Kuepper said.

While there is no evidence of an exodus there are signs that overseas recruitment is slowing. Some multinationals and banks are also looking to diversify risk by moving certain operations out of Hong Kong.

“It doesn’t mean they are going to move their whole operation out, but they are drawing up a list and seeing what needs to stay in Hong Kong and what potentially could be moved,” said Stephen West, chief commercial officer of the Hong Kong-based consultancy Quartermain Alpha.

He added that it was not unusual for companies to review risk-control strategies, but once they moved it was unlikely they would come back.

According to a survey released last month by the Hong Kong Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, more than a third of the 270 companies that responded were considering sending or had already sent the Japanese families of their employees back home.

Another 16 firms said they would relocate all of their staff to Japan before the end of the year, and 90 more said they were considering such a move.

But others in the international business community stressed a commitment to Hong Kong.

AmCham’s Joseph said many major US companies “are devoted to staying here”. A chamber survey published in October showed that less than a quarter of their members were considering scaling back or relocating away from Hong Kong.

European Union Chamber of Commerce in China president Joerg Wuttke also said he was “struck” by the optimism of foreign firms about conditions in Hong Kong.

For many long-term foreign residents the connection to the city is not just financial but personal and they are keen to see the recovery begin.

Bhim Prasad Kafle, vice-chairman of the Nepal Chamber of Commerce Hong Kong, agreed.

“[Both sides] have to sit down together at the negotiating table and find a solution. That has to happen, otherwise there is no other way,” he said.

Kafle, who moved to Hong Kong 24 years ago to study hospitality management, said he had suffered a 30 per cent drop in business at his restaurant group in the popular Soho area.

But he said he was optimistic there would be a rebound for the city. “Hong Kong is always like this – when [business] comes back it comes back fast,” he said.

Hong Kong’s recovery will hinge on the critical questions that have brought millions onto the streets this year: how will the city define itself in relation to the mainland?

“It’s going to take some pretty creative politicians to turn this around and create a vision for Hong Kong,” said corporate lawyer, Michael Pepper, who has spent over two decades in the city.

“We really need to understand over the course of the next five years what happens beyond 2047,” he said, referring to the end date of one country, two systems set out in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which defined the terms of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997.

Under the system, Hong Kong’s independent judiciary has contributed to the city’s role as a trusted middleman between foreign business and mainland China.

AmCham’s Joseph said the turmoil in Hong Kong had raised some big questions about the future.

“You do have to ask the question, honestly, now – we had the colonial era, and the first 20 years after the handover…. and stuff didn’t really change and the privilege of the expats largely remained intact,” she said.

“Could we be moving into a third era, where maybe expats can do business, but at a higher risk, if this becomes more of a ‘one country’ and less of a ‘two systems’?

“It’s been an emotional year. Everyone is going to spend some time thinking through things, myself included.”


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