HK migrants change their minds about Australia

A warm love affair between Hong Kong immigrants and Australia has turned cool. Less than four weeks before Britain hands Hong Kong over to China, thousands of Chinese are packing their bags to leave the lucky country, convinced they can make more money back in the former British colony, even under communist rule.

"When Margaret Thatcher announced in the Eighties that Britain would give up Hong Kong, it was fashionable to emigrate, to get out," said Owen Yue, 40, a transport planner who arrived in Sydney from Hong Kong in 1990. "Now, it's the fashion to go back."

The figures tell their own story. From being almost a non-starter as a source of Australian immigrants a few years ago, Hong Kong last year was the fourth largest source country after New Zealand, Britain and China.

But, in the six months to last December, just as the handover deadline loomed closer, applications to emigrate to Australia dropped by one-third.

And even those granted Australian residency had already begun testing the waters back home. According to the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, a Hong Kong government body, almost one-third of the 100,000 Hong Kong community in Australia went back to the colony to work last year, while retaining their Australian passports.

The immigrants of the Nineties are a different breed from the first wave of Chinese drawn by the Australian gold rush of the 1850s. In the intervening years came the White Australia immigration policy which barred non-Europeans until it was abolished only 25 years ago.

The latest wave of Hong Kong immigrants are highly-skilled professionals and rich business people, who are expected to transfer about A$780m (pounds 370m) from Hong Kong to Australia this year. Much of this will be invested in properties such as the high-rise apartment buildings that are changing the skylines of big cities like Sydney and Melbourne, or in restaurants such as the Shark Fin in Sydney's Chinatown, an establishment so vast that the waiters communicate with each other on walkie-talkies.

But for many professional people, such as lawyers, engineers and accountants, job prospects have been disappointing in Australia, where unemployment has not fallen below 8 per cent since the recession of the early Nineties. Drawn to Australia for its political stability at a time of uncertainty in Hong Kong, these people have decided that life in Hong Kong is likely to go on as normal after 1 July, at least for a few years, and are going back to realise their earning capacity, leaving their families behind in Australia.

Lawyers, for example, can make up to six times more in Hong Kong than in Australia, where tax is tighter. "A common refrain is that Australia is the best place to live, but not the best to make money," said Catherine Chung, a Hong Kong-born Sydney solicitor.

A more unsavoury impact on Hong Kong immigration has come from the rise of racial politics in Australia, led by Pauline Hanson, an Independent MP from Queensland. Since her election to federal parliament last year, Mrs Hanson has waged an increasingly bitter and polarising campaign against Asian immigration, welfare to Aborigines and foreign investment.

The Australian press have attacked John Howard, the prime minister, for failing to repudiate Mrs Hanson strongly enough. Her simplistic brand of xenophobia and nationalism has drawn large crowds at her speaking engagements, especially in depressed rural areas. It has also caused alarm in Asia, particularly in Hong Kong, where some prospective immigrants have added the "Hanson phenomenon" to their list of reasons to think twice about emigrating down under.