Expats Flee Hong Kong Over Protests, Coronavirus

Expats living in Hong Kong have been fleeing the country after nearly a year of protests and the new, looming threat of the hyper-virulent coronavirus, which has already infected 62 people in the country as of February 17.

Residents wear masks as they march to protest against the government's plan to set up a quarantine site close to their community amid the Wuhan outbreak, in Hong Kong, on Feb 2, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

"It's just becoming an unstable environment to raise a child in," said Ian Jacob, owner of a construction materials company who is leaving Hong Kong with his wife and 10-year-old daughter after 15 years, according to the Straits Times.

"We watched as the situation got worse and worse," he said of the political unrest which has unfolded over the past year.

With classes suspended again amid the coronavirus outbreak, the prospect of more home schooling for their 10-year-old daughter pushed them to take refuge in Auckland, New Zealand.

Mr Jacob said they'll be moving back there for good once the school year ends in Hong Kong. -Straits Times

According to the Times, expats who have been thinking about leaving the politically unstable city have a sense of urgency due to the coroavirus, which has officially killed over 2,000 people and infected over 75,000.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has been oddly criticized for closing schools until mid-March due to the coronavirus threat, unlike Singapore.

Critics accuse Chief Executive Carrie Lam's government of mishandling the latest crisis compared with Singapore, which has kept schools open.

An exodus by expats like Mr Jacob could further damage an economy already reeling from the unrest and the virus, with visitor numbers plunging and unemployment rising.

Hong Kong residents who come from elsewhere play outsized roles in finance, law and other service industries that make the city a global business capital. -Straits Times

There are just under 700,000 foreigners and mainland Chinese living in Hong Kong, accounting for nearly 9.5% of the population according to the 2016 census. Half of all expats ion the Special Administrative Region are from the Philippines and Indonesia - the primary source of domestic help. Additionally, there are around 35,000 Britons and 14,800 Americans.

And while the Times can't say exactly how many people are considering leaving, "there is growing anecdotal evidence of a shift in sentiment among expats," as evidenced by relocation companies which have experienced a spike in inquiries about moving, along with predictions that the ongoing political crisis will only "worsen in the days and weeks ahead," as the city deals with the virus - according toa February 11 report from risk consultants Steve Vickers and Associates.

Links International Relocation Ltd had a 45 per cent increase in inquiries about moves in the second week of February compared with a year earlier, said Mr Patrick O'Donnell, the company's Hong Kong-based managing director.


Typically the peak season for overseas moves is in June, yet springtime already is starting to look busy, said Mr Timothy Tao, Hong Kong-based director of business development with relocation company Asia Tigers Group. Inquiries have jumped in the past month, he said.

"People are telling us: How soon can you pack us up?" Mr Tao said. -Straits Times

Meanwhile, worried workers have been panic buying groceries - emptying out shelves, and working from home. This has left restaurants struggling.

According to a February 12 letter from the British and French chambers of commerce, Hong Kong is at economic risk if a mass exodus occurs, and could threaten the city's global status.

"If the specific needs of international schools cannot be rapidly addressed, this will very likely trigger decisions of families (not just expatriates) to leave Hong Kong in the coming weeks," wrote Rebecca Silli and Peter Burnett, chairs of the French and British chambers.

"This would also have dramatic consequences on the international schools' financial position, even to the point of putting at risk the continued operation of some."

Some families have opted to temporarily relocate until the political situation in Hong Kong settles down.

Insurance industry executive Ruth Lu, who has children ages 7 and 11, has rented a house with a pool on the Thai island of Koh Samui while schools are closed.

"We don't even need to wear masks," she said.

A native of China's Jiangsu Province who has lived in Hong Kong for more than 20 years, Ms Lu has no immediate plans to move but the unrest has soured her on the city.

"It's not the old Hong Kong like when I first arrived," she said.

Others, such as several bankers interviewed by Bloomberg, said they had moved abroad with their families until the outbreak has subsided. 

Approximately 75% of the families at the prestigious private Chinese International School with over 1,530 students, have provided their whereabouts - with 20% of them reporting to be outside Hong Kong, according to headmaster Sean Lynch.

The US State Department, meanwhile, has warned Americans about travel to Hong Kong - advising increased caution, while allowing non-essential State Department employees and their families to evacuate.