The colony returns to Chinese sovereignty in less than 10 months. Previous predictions that the bulk of the exodus had tapered off now appear to have been over-optimistic. The survey, by Hong Kong's Institute of Human Resources Management, suggests emigration will rise by 23 per cent this year, with 53,000 people leaving. The government admits this figure might be correct but says its own estimates, based on information from consulates, suggest 46,000 may leave.
Whatever the outcome, no one denies that those leaving are drawn from the elite of skilled and entrepreneurial people who leave hard-to-fill gaps. There are already shortages of well-qualified managerial staff. The senior ranks of the civil service, where many officers have right of abode in Britain, look set to thin rapidly. Almost half the police officers above the rank of senior superintendent have told the force they intend leaving.
A report to be published soon by the Hong Kong Transition Project, which is monitoring attitudes to the transfer of sovereignty, indicates that 80 per cent of the population are prepared to make a definite commitment to staying in the territory.
The report states that about 7 per cent of the population already hold foreign passports and can leave at a moment's notice, while 5 per cent are applying. Thus it may be realistic to assume that about 12 per cent of the population are in a position to leave.
However, the project's research suggests a combination of factors, including right of overseas abode through family ties, could allow as much as 20 per cent of the population to go.
"This introduces a considerable element of instability to Hong Kong not present in other entities", said Michael DeGolyer, the project's director. The large numbers of those preparing to go become more alarming when added to the many who have been leaving every year for the better part of a decade.
The number peaked at 66,000 in 1992, three years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, reflecting the average two to three years it takes to prepare for emigration.
The government has been saying the outflow from Hong Kong is increasingly counterbalanced by an inflow from those who established residency abroad and are returning to secure better-paid work. However, the Institute of Human Resources Management research suggests that although the number of those returning is rising significantly, only a fifth remained in the colony before going back to their new homes.
No one knows whether the British nationality scheme, which gave passports to 50,000 families, but allows them to remain in the colony indefinitely, will have its desired effect of "anchoring" key people to Hong Kong by providing a secure escape-hatch. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of those offered passports are taking them up immediately. The biggest brake on Hong Kong emigration prospects is likely to come from the countries which are targets for resettlement. Australia, for example, looks set to increase restrictions on certain types of immigrants.
Anti-Asian immigration sentiment is a big issue in the coming New Zealand election, which is likely to result in more restrictions, regardless of the outcome. Canada is cracking down on Hong Kong immigrants who do not fulfil citizenship requirements by spending enough time in the country, meaning many seeking a new home may have to return.