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And the winner is … HK’s resilience

Sydney, 15 March 2023: Everything Everywhere All at Once – an Oscars-dominating movie and an apt description of my travel schedule, which has taken me to Bangkok, Tokyo and now Sydney, where I’ve just arrived for the AGM of Ally Law. Only a few months ago, plane-hopping in and out of Hong Kong was unthinkable, given the city’s onerous Covid-19 quarantine and testing regime. It’s good to be back – albeit belatedly – to normality.

The Oscars were headline news as I prepared to fly. Congratulations to everyone involved in Everything Everywhere, which scooped seven gongs including Best Picture and a landmark Best Lead Actress award for Michelle Yeoh. She thanked her “extended family in Hong Kong where I started my career”, having shot to fame more than three decades ago in such films as Yes, Madam and Police Story 3: Supercop. Secretary for Culture, Sports and Tourism Kevin Yeung, having erroneously labelled the Malaysian star a “Hong Kong actor” upon winning a Golden Globe two months ago, isn’t making the same mistake this time. Acknowledging Michelle Yeoh’s early roles, he hails her triumph as “testimony to the strong potential of Hong Kong’s talents and film industry”. Well, quite.

Alas, a significant number of our city’s “talents” are exporting their “potential”, including some to my current location. This week, we learn of a sharp rise in Hongkongers – many of them graduates and skilled workers – choosing to live in Australia through various schemes. While migration to Down Under from places such as Mainland China, India and the Philippines has declined over the past decade, the numbers arriving from our city have soared more than 200%. Over 4,000 were granted permanent residency in 2021-22 alone.

Some 370 Hong Kong citizens have been offered permanent residency in Australia in the first year of a bespoke immigration scheme introduced after implementation of our city’s national security law. Under the plan, introduced on 5 March last year, Hong Kong and British National Overseas passport holders who have graduated in Australia and worked in the country for three or four years can apply for permanent residency. Aside from the 370 granted such status – and no application was turned down – the scheme has also triggered a sharp rise in applications to study Down Under. We are told Australia issued 3,900 study visas to Hongkongers last year, 40% more than in 2021. These trends are being mirrored in countries such as Canada and the UK.

Of course, sky-high property prices and a chronic shortage of flats, which mean relatively few citizens hold out hope of ever owning their own home, are significant drivers of this migration. Beijing has, rightly, long demanded our government find effective solutions to the housing issue. So, we welcome news that the largest hostel project for young Hongkongers so far, developed by charity Po Leung Kuk, has opened for applications. The 27-storey block in Yuen Long offers 1,680 places for eligible residents aged 18 to 30, with rooms charged at 50% of the market rental rate. It is one of seven projects under an initiative in which NGOs are fully funded by the government to construct youth hostels and operate them on a self-financing basis. Chief Executive John Lee has pledged to expand the scheme so it will almost double in size within five years.

If such hostels can stem departures, what about arrivals? We’re talking tourism here. The good news: visitor numbers have jumped more than three-fold after the authorities launched their HK$100 million “Hello Hong Kong” campaign early last month. The bad news: this isn’t enough. Tourism industry stakeholders say the recovery has failed to meet expectations. Nightlife guru Allan Zeman and Travel Industry Council Chairwoman Gianna Hsu consider lack of flights to be a major issue, although there are hopes for stronger tourism growth in the second half of this year. Clearly, you can’t recover from three years of self-imposed isolation at the flick of a switch.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to assume Mainlanders, who make up almost 80% of Hong Kong’s visitors, are interested only in shopping and sightseeing. A survey of travellers from the Greater Bay Area by McKinsey & Co shows they are increasingly seeking financial services, healthcare and vaccinations in Hong Kong. McKinsey Associate Partner Jady Ye advises that improved marketing and branding would help our city “gain a better understanding of mainland tourists’ needs”.

Hong Kong has endured challenging times but I’m optimistic for the future. China’s new premier Li Qiang agrees, predicting our city is poised for “brighter days ahead”. This is the sentiment I will convey to my Ally Law colleagues in Sydney. What they read in the Western media bears little reality to life on the ground. Talent drain? I’m committed to Hong Kong, as are the vast majority of my guests on our regular Law & More podcast.

But back to the Academy Awards. In celebrating Hong Kong’s famed fortitude, perhaps we should embrace the title of the James Bond movie that catapulted future Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh to global stardom all those years ago: that’s right, my friends, Tomorrow Never Dies.

Until next time, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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