Reverse Migration in Hong Kong

(Ta Kung Pao)  By Huang Kangxian (黃康顯).  February 24, 2005.

Basically, Hong Kong is a society of migrants.  Within the population, about 5% are non-Chinese who came from various places in Asia, Europe and North America.  They have their own social groups, and they turn Hong Kong into an international city.  95% of the population is of Chinese descent, and they speak Cantonese, Jiaozhou, Hakka, Fujian, Shanghai and other Chinese dialects, creating a diversified society.  Still, the fact is that 95% of the population understands Chinese and more than 60% can use English.  Thus, the people of Hong Kong have a common language, and they can even use the international language of the day.  How did this happen?  In the past, there were large numbers of immigrants from mainland China and a small number of foreigners also moved here.  More recently, considerable numbers of Hong Kong persons have emigrated overseas.  The continual movement of the population is a characteristic of Hong Kong.

There were six different waves of immigration into Hong Kong.  When Hong Kong was first opened up, very few people lived there.  Large numbers of people moved here during the uprising of the Celestial Kingdom of Peace, and turned Hong Kong into a port of commerce.  After the establishment of the Republic, many old Manchurian dynasty stalwarts moved here, and introduced the traditional culture.  In 1938 during the War of Resistance against Japan, Hong Kong became a port of refuge for mainlanders, and the population quickly increased to 1,860,000, including as many as 270,000 who slept in the streets.  There were many intellectuals among them, and they introduced a new culture.  In 1949, the Chinese civil war ended, and more refuges rushed into Hong Kong.  The population increased to more than 2 million but their financial capital brought about rapid economic development.  Afterwards, the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution led to many more people rushing into Hong Kong.  Then the Vietnamese boat people came.  Between 1978 to 1980, the population increased by more than 500,000 and provided ample labor supply for economic development.

Since the 1980's, people began to move out of Hong Kong.  As the future of Hong Kong was unclear to many, there was a decade of emigration, principally to the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.  In the early 1980's, it was about 20,000 per year; 30,000 in 1987; 60,000 in 1991; a peak of 66,000 in 1992.  Thereafter, it slowed down a bit.  In the year of the return, 1997, it was still 30,000.  Over that ten-year period, more than 400,000 people moved away from Hong Kong, or more than 5% of the population.  In many foreign cities, there are now Hong Kong migrant communities.  Fortunately, the capital did not flow out, because Hong Kong was still economically productive.

Since the 1980's, there were also many people moving to Hong Kong.  The British colonial government set up a daily quota of 150 mainlanders to legally move in to live in Hong Kong.  That meant a total of 54,750 persons per year.  These people mostly came for family reunion.  Prior to the return in 1997, this quota was almost always completely filled.  Thus, the total population of Hong Kong did not decrease as a result of the emigration.  For example, in 1997, the net increase in the population was 16,800 when emigration and immigration are added together, in addition to normal birth increases.  Thus, the population of Hong Kong will continue to increase towards a population crisis.

The statistical department of the Hong Kong government makes population projections periodically.  In 1976, they projected that 20 years later (namely. in 1996), there ought to be a population of 5,867,110 with a range between 5,514,100 and 6,319,900.  In 1998, the actual number was 6,311,000 which was near the high end of the range.  Recently, the statistical department has issued the Hong Kong population projection for 2004-2033.  The projection was that the population of Hong Kong will be 8,484,100 in 2033.  Assuming that what happened with the projection in 1967, we would expect an actual population that is 10% higher, or more than 9 million and going to 10 million.  This is more than 50% higher than the current population.  How is a small place like Hong Kong going to accommodate the increase in population?

Prior to the return in 1997, the population of Hong Kong was 6,502,100, for an increase of 191,1000 (or 3%) over the preceding year.  Based upon this rate of increase, the population of Hong Kong will exceed 10 million in 2033.  There is another factor that should not be ignored.  After the return in 1997, more overseas emigrants were returning to Hong Kong as the place became more stable and people gained more confidence.  Besides, many people were not faring well careerwise overseas and it was easier to come back to a place that they were familiar with.  These people hold Hong Kong identity cards and can return at will, so the actual number of returning residents is not known to the government.  So the 190,000 plus increase in population may be due to the returnees in a large part.  In the 1998, the increase in the population dropped down to 41,600.  In the four years between 1998 to 2002, the population held steady at around 60,000 (or about 0.9%) while the number of legal immigrants from mainland China was between 50,000 to 60,000.

By 2003, the situation had changed dramatically.  The population was 6,813,100, which increased by 16,100 (or 0.24%) over the preceding year.  The 2004 figure has not been published yet, but it should be about the same.  In the long-term, the population of Hong Kong may only be about 7.3 million in 2033, or about 1 million less than the projected figure.  Why is that?

Let us look at the situation.  Since 1997, the emigration tide has slowed down.  In 1998, there were 19,300 emigrants.  By 2003, there were only 9,300 emigrants, and less than 10,000 for the first time in the last 30 years, and this is likely to be lower than the number of returnees.

The other circumstance is that the birth rate of Hong Kong is decreasing.  In 1998, the birth rate was 8.1 per 100,000.  In 2002, it decreased to 7.1; in 2003, it fell to 6.8, or about half the normal rate even as life expectancy of Hong Kong has increased to the point where it leads the world.

But there is another peculiar circumstance.  In 2003, the number of mainland Chinese immigrants was 53,507 of about 98% of the quota.  In 2004, the number of mainland Chinese immigrants was only 38,100 (less than 70% of the quota).  This is the first time since October 1, 1980 that the number of immigrants has fallen short of the quota.  What does this show?  As the economy of mainland China has taken off and approached the level of Hong Kong, there was no reason anymore to come to Hong Kong to raise one's standard of living.

Many young people in Hong Kong are willing to find a future in China, especially those in the professional occupation.  This 'reverse migration' phenomenon has been happening.  It used to be that people came to Hong Kong from mainland China, or people leave Hong Kong to go outside.  But what is happening now is that people are returning to Hong Kong from overseas, and people are moving from Hong Kong to mainland China.  This reversal of direction is not an abnormal turn, but it is a normal course during a time when Hong Kong becomes integrated into the Pearl River delta.