The authors of this article are students at the School of Journalism and Communication at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Material in the piece was originally published in the school's student magazine, Varsity. The article is part of a collaboration between The Huffington Post and journalism schools around the world.
HONG KONG -- Frederick Au Tsz-ho was a 15-year-old high school student when his family left Hong Kong for Canada. He could not bear to leave his friends and hometown, so he decided to stay behind.
Five years later, Au is studying civil and structural engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. But looking back, he said he regrets his decision to stay. "I feel Hong Kong isn't right for me," he said. "I hadn't realized there would be so many practical problems after graduation. For example, it's hard to buy a flat in Hong Kong, the high property prices, the price of goods."
Au said he also worries about the breakneck pace of life, the long working hours and the pollution. While members of his family are thinking of returning, Au is considering emigrating, preferably to a European country, where he thinks he would not have to contend with so many people and so much pressure.
He is not the only disillusioned Hong Kong youngster yearning to leave the city. Many say they are increasingly fed up with the fast-paced lifestyle, frequent social and political conflicts, and constant scandals concerning government officials, including the recent sentencing of a former housing minister for fraud. A survey conducted by the Hong Kong Institute of Education and other organizations in July found that nearly 40 percent of 500 respondents between the ages of 15 and 34 said they believe Hong Kong will become more corrupt in the next five years.
Young people are also frustrated by high property prices in Hong Kong, which consistently tops surveys of the world's least affordable housing. In January, the U.S. think tank Demographia found the median price of homes to be 13.5 times the city's median household income.
Add to that the increasing tensions between Hong Kongers and people from mainland China, and emigration has become a hot topic in the city. In a survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong's student magazine, which surveyed 207 students at five local universities, more than 55 percent of respondents said they would consider leaving Hong Kong.
Asked to name up to three countries where they would like to emigrate, 21 percent of students chose Australia, 20 percent the United Kingdom, 13 percent the United States, and 12 percent Canada. Students who wanted to emigrate said the top four deciding factors were: the quality and pace of life, the environment and pollution, property costs and living expenses, and the political environment. They said the things that attracted them most to other countries were quality and pace of life, the environment and social welfare.
John Hu, the director of a migration consulting business, said he is not surprised by the survey's results. He said he has seen a 100 percent increase in the number of clients seeking his services compared with last year.
Hu said that Australia was popular among students in the survey because it sets relatively low requirements for those looking to emigrate; for example, a job offer in the country is not a prerequisite for migration. But even Australia is reducing the number of occupations it recognizes for people who want to emigrate. In July, five occupations from the pharmacy and aircraft maintenance fields were removed from the country's "Skilled Occupation List." Other countries, like Canada, have also tightened their policies.
Hu added that those seeking to emigrate may be facing stiffer competition than in the past. Government figures show that 3,900 people emigrated in the first half of 2013, an 8 percent increase from the same period last year. Canada, Australia and the U.S. are the most sought-after countries, the figures show.
Mary Chan, an immigration consultant at Rothe International Canada, said there are even more people who had emigrated from Hong Kong, returned, and now want to leave again. According to the government's Security Bureau, more than 416,000 people left Hong Kong between 1990 (the year after the Tiananmen Square massacre) and 1997, when the territory was handed over to Chinese rule. Many of them went to Canada and came back to Hong Kong after acquiring citizenship, Chan said.
In recent years, she said she has received more inquiries from people who returned to Hong Kong after 1997 and now plan to go back to Canada, often because of concerns over education, politics and property prices. "The children's education is foremost, it is always because of the next generation," Chan said.
A quality education is what prompted 20-year-old Joshua Ng Yuet-shing to go back to Canada with his family in August 2012. "In other countries, education doesn't serve the sole purpose of finding a job," Ng said from Toronto. "They [the professors] really want to teach and they really want you to learn something."
In Hong Kong, Ng's family had faced financial pressure from high property prices and increasing rent. The family of four moved from a 600-square-foot apartment to a 300-square-foot one. "Middle-class people like us aren't given any breaks in the budget announcements," he said, referring to policies in the government's annual budget.
Some scholars argue that property ownership is crucial to the younger generation's material and emotional attachment to a city.
"If young people can't even afford a flat, how can they build the sense of belonging to this city?" asks Chung Kim-wah, an assistant professor of applied social science at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Earlier this year, Chung held a focus group to conduct research for the government's Long Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee. During a discussion among young professionals, one said he would rather emigrate than save up to buy a tiny, expensive flat in Hong Kong. Others immediately jumped in to agree. "The anger of young people is obvious. Even if they work hard to save money, a price surge in the property market can wipe out their years of effort," Chung said.
However, Victor Zheng, the co-director of the Centre for Social and Political Development Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, played down any talk of a new wave of emigration. "Emigration is a very important decision. [Mass migration] is not going to happen unless there are huge incidents, like a massive riot in China, political persecutions or an outbreak of disease," he said.
For Zheng, the current migration levels are normal and even desirable. "Normal flows of people can facilitate social mobility to a certain extent," he said. "People leaving from the high positions will create vacancies for the others to fill." Despite widespread discontent with the government and deepening social problems, Zheng said he thinks Hong Kong people still have a strong sense of belonging.
Indeed, some young people are opting to return to Hong Kong. Doris Cheung Pui-ying, 30, came back after living in Canada for 15 years. She swapped a three-story townhouse in Canada for an 18-square-foot bedroom in a flat that she shares with her family. Cheung made the move because she thinks there are more opportunities in Hong Kong. "I have been in the same position for six years [as a manager in Canada], but I always wanted to earn more," she said.
But many disagree about the opportunities available. Aaron Ng Ka-hing, 30, moved to Australia in 2002 to study business. He found a job there soon after graduation, so he stayed. He now lives in Melbourne and runs an online retail platform. From time to time, he considers investing in Hong Kong, but he said the political environment often discourages him from doing so. "There are many uncertainties in the policies," he said. "I cannot see which direction the new government is leading Hong Kong."
Among his list of concerns, Ng cites intensifying political conflicts and an unbalanced economy skewed toward the financial sector. "There are too many grievances," he said. "The political environment is unstable and there is a lot of negative news. [A place like that] can't hold on to dynamic people."