Hong Kong's brain drain: Why its young are losing hope and leaving

Hong Kong's brain drain: Why its young are losing hope and leaving

Is the city about to lose its best and brightest as it did during the 1997 handover? The programme Insight looks at two key reasons some of them no longer believe in their future if they stay.

Insight Hong Kong 1
Activist Agnes Chow Ting is one of those determined to stay and fight for greater political freedom, but other disillusioned young Hong Kong residents are leaving.

HONG KONG: Newly married couple Jimmy and Yuki Lam dream of owning a house one day, running a successful business and living in an environment that enables them to speak freely. Their online business is doing well, so there’s potential there.

But in March, the couple, both in their 20s, bought a one-way ticket out of Hong Kong. They no longer believe that the territory has a future, with its widening wealth gap and restrictive political environment making them feel disgruntled.

“It’s very hard for the young generation to afford a house,” said Mrs Lam.

Her husband added: “We earn HK$10,000 to HK$20,000 (S$1,710 to S$3,430) a month, and an apartment is HK$5 million upward … If you buy an apartment, you have to pay for it for the rest of your life.”

To them, the city is not only dying – it is already dead. That mindset is not uncommon.

While Hong Kong’s per capita income has consistently ranked high – among the world’s top cities – it appears that discontent is starting to cause a new wave of residents to leave, especially the young and restless.

WATCH: Their growing disaffection (6:11)

It is reminiscent of the exodus before the territory’s 1997 handover, but the reasons are different, as the programme Insight discovers. And the question is whether anything can get them to stay. (Watch the episode here.)


Goldmax Immigration Consulting programme director Margaret Chau has seen a 20 per cent increase in emigration enquiries since 2014 and said this has been a growing trend over the past decade.

Some are unhappy with the political situation, worried about the uncertainty over Hong Kong’s political future as the Chinese government tightens its grip on the territory.

The other cause of disenchantment is the harsh economic reality that manifests itself in, for example, high property prices.

Insight Hong Kong 6

Some of the young complain about having to live with their parents, despite their university education, and thus delay marriage. “So they’re angry,” said Ms Chau.

Mr Lam and his wife are one of those couples who cannot afford their own place and must live with his mother in a two-bedroom flat.

A lack of space has also made it harder for them to start a family, “even though we have money”, said Mrs Lam. They want children, but not in Hong Kong – not in a small home.

Insight Hong Kong 13

Constricted, stifled and confused, the couple are planning to migrate to Australia, a country they fell in love with after spending a year there on a working holiday. “We did a lot of hiking … we like nature,” said Mr Lam.

“But in Hong Kong, it’s all concrete, tall buildings and very bad air quality when you compare it to Australia.”


Former senior civil servant Joseph Wong said that with the average price of a flat beyond the reach of a graduate, many “don’t see the prospect of having middle-class living or owning a flat without support from rich parents”.

“So this, combined, of course makes them a very unhappy generation,” he added.

Insight Hong Kong 11
Former senior civil servant Joseph Wong

While an estimated 800,000 people left Hong Kong owing to the 1997 handover, the mindset of the youth today and those who left the city then are somewhat different, he believes.

In the years leading up to 1997, families migrated with their children “for fear of the communists coming to Hong Kong”.

“Today, the young people seem to be disillusioned in a way and don’t see a new identity,” he said. 

They just don’t find that there’s hope in this place, which is a very sad thing.

Former Hong Kong chief secretary Anson Chan suggested that socio-economic issues such as competition from mainlanders and the income disparity are also creating unhappiness.

According to a Hong Kong Census and Statistics report last year, the richest 10 per cent of households were earning 44 times more than what the poorest 10 per cent of the society were making.

Insight Hong Kong 7

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s regional director for Asia, Mr Duncan Innes-Ker, believes that this wealth gap is a “big issue” for the society. “There’s a concern around equality of opportunity,” he said.

Particularly with house prices so high now, a lot of young people feel that there are more barriers in their way to achieving the levels of prosperity that their parents had.


The cynicism of the young people is not limited to bread-and-butter issues. There is also a growing distrust of the central authority and a lack of faith in Hong Kong’s leaders to protect the city’s interests.

Insight Hong Kong 2

In 2014, tens of thousands took to the streets when the pro-democracy Occupy Central protests erupted, sending the city to a near standstill.

They were unhappy with the central decision that the Chinese Communist Party pre-screen all election candidates for the city’s top leadership, which the protesters felt was not genuine universal suffrage.

Like many young Hongkongers, public relations consultant Matthew Chan is frustrated with what he sees as the central government’s interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs. The 30-year-old said he was proud of the protests.

“I was like them, maybe a decade ago,” he said. 

But my experience is that … nothing changes inside (Hong Kong). It’s basically just an order from Beijing, and then everybody just falls in line.

One reason the Hong Kong government will always have difficulty governing is that as long as the city’s chief executive is not popularly elected, he or she will lack political legitimacy, said Mrs Chan.

“There’s a growing concern that our government isn’t helping Hong Kong to defend the ‘one country, two systems’ … and ensuring that it’s still Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong,” she added.

Insight Hong Kong 9

Some have felt that China has been getting heavy-handed in handling the city’s affairs by, for example, increasing restrictions on human rights and freedom.

Former lawmaker Kenneth Chan, who teaches political science at Hong Kong Baptist University, spoke about what Chinese President Xi Jinping once told Hongkongers: That instead of the city having separation of powers, the government, legislature and judiciary should work together.

“This is a direct attack on one of our core values,” said Dr Chan. “Separation of powers is so important, to make sure that … the people in charge of Hong Kong will be checked and balanced properly, according to the law.”


There are others, however, like Mr Tam Yiu-chung, a former chairman of the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, who believe that China has the territory’s best interests at heart and is committed to the “one country, two systems” promise.

He said that some in Hong Kong are too focused on the “two systems” aspect and do not want the central government to meddle too much. “But this isn’t practical,” he argued.

“The central government has ‘full governance’ and is only giving some areas of control to Hong Kong. Everyone needs to be clear (on this).”

Insight Hong Kong 12

Mr Tam, who was recently promoted to the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, said “trust is a two-way thing” – if groups of Hongkongers are “causing nuisance”, for example, then this would cause the central government to worry.

Perhaps the gap in expectations between the Chinese authorities and Hong Kong’s youth is most apparent here.

Democracy activist Agnes Chow Ting, 21, stressed that things like the right to hold demonstrations and to vote for legislative councillors have been suppressed.

“We still don’t have a democratic political system in which the people in Hong Kong can decide our own future or the direction of Hong Kong,” she said, adding that the result is “one country, 1.5 systems”.

Insight Hong Kong 3

But Mr Tam pointed out that the Basic Law – meant to protect Hong Kong’s special status – was drawn up nearly three decades ago, before many of today’s youths were born, so they lack that background knowledge.

“After they were born, the handover had already occurred, and they felt that … Hong Kong had lots of autonomy and was an independent country,” he said.

Then they start to question why the central government is so “controlling” in many aspects, and they misunderstand the “one country, two systems” principle.

“We still have to look back at the concerns, interests and goals of the central government. In this sense, the younger generation may not really understand this,” added Mr Tam.

Insight Hong Kong 4


But can more be done to engage and persuade those who are frustrated with the current state of affairs not to leave?

Dialogue appears to be the best way to help bridge the differences between the two camps – a tool that could build trust.

To this end, Mr Tam called on the younger generation not to “hold too many grudges” or they would have “no way out”.

“As a young person, you need to remain idealistic. But the starting point is to hope that the place and the country will progress. We need to be rational and pragmatic,” he said.

He added that some who have left Hong Kong have later realised that it was a better place to live.

“If you feel that it’s beneficial for you (to go abroad), and you want to try, sure, by all means. You’re still young, you can go and try, but you can always turn back as well,” he said.

On Beijing’s part, it must address Hongkongers’ “real feelings”, said Dr Chan, instead of resorting to the “laziest ways” – using “old-fashioned, autocratic instruments”.

Still, there are those like Ms Chow who have pledged to stay on and dedicate their lives to making Hong Kong a better society.

“A lot of people might think that it’s desperate, and nearly impossible to change this current situation in Hong Kong. That’s why they’d like to leave,” she said.

“But hope can be created by people when they come together and … fight for something they believe in.”

Insight Hong Kong 8

As for the Lams, they have already made up their minds. But in their search for a better future, they are leaving behind part of themselves.

“I’ll support them (the residents), but sometimes I feel very bad that it looks as if I’m betraying them … and not doing what I should be doing as a citizen in Hong Kong. But life’s like that,” said Mr Lam.

His wife also feels “a little bit” guilty, though she said: “I’ll still care about the future of Hong Kong, but I feel hopeless (here).”

Watch the episode here. The programme Insight is telecast on Thursdays at 8pm.

Insight Hong Kong 14

Source: CNA/dp