Exodus from Hong Kong begins

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Hong Kong

The biggest ever emigration of people from Hong Kong is expected to take place this year. It is likely that almost 2 per cent of the 6 million population, or about 2,000 per week, will leave, including some of the most highly skilled and prosperous people in the territory.

The Hong Kong Transition Project, at the Hong Kong Baptist University, one of the more sophisticated polling and data-analysis projects tracking attitudes to the change of sovereignty, is working on a minimum estimate of 90,000 -100,000 people leaving this year. This compares with the previous annual exit-rate of about 60,000 people. University researchers estimate at least 1 million people, about 15 per cent of the population, could, in the words of project director Michael DeGolyer, "walk out of Hong Kong tonight".

A more conservative estimate comes from the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute, which believes 700,000 Hong Kong people already hold foreign passports. This is not inconsistent with the 1 million figure, as family members who lack overseas passports can easily leave to join their close relations.

The major countries attracting Hong Kong immigrants - Australia, Canada and the United States - decline to give forecasts of immigration trends and are slow to update figures.

Figures for the past year show the rate of applications and visas issued for the US and Australia are in line with previous years. But emigration to Canada, the most popular destination, is picking up at a tremendous rate. Visa applications almost doubled between 1993 and 1994, from 4,000 households (about 12,000 people) to 7,700 households. Last year there was another increase in applications, with 8,700 households applying. Although high, this level of applications is lower than in the two years which followed the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Some of those applicants only recently landed in Canada, which explains why landings are at an all-time high. Between 1991 and 1992 they almost doubled, the following year saw a slight decrease, giving way to an increase of more than 20 per cent between 1993 and 1994. Full-year figures are not available for 1995, but the indications are that the landings level remained comparable with 1994.

Another major source of emigration comes from the British nationality scheme, offering British passports to 50,000 households, which can be taken up at any time. The idea was to encourage key job-holders to remain at their posts in the knowledge that they had an escape route to Britain.

There is evidence the scheme is starting to deplete the middle-management ranks of the civil service and the police. An official survey last year showed almost half the police officers above senior superintendent intended to leave before 1997. According to government figures, more than 70 per cent of civil servants taking early retirement in 1994 have emigrated.

Many observers had seen 1995 as the crucial year for emigration but anecdotal evidence suggests even those who have obtained right of residence overseas delayed moving because economic prospects have remained better in Hong Kong.

Now there is a feeling among those who have the means to go that the party is over. Dr DeGolyer says there is now a shift in the pattern of emigration, moving from the previous pattern of people preparing an escape-hatch to a situation where "they are pulling up roots and heading out".

His research shows half those going are now taking their assets and two- thirds are leaving with all immediate family members. Previously asset movement was limited and it was common for only part of the family to move overseas.