Hong Kong may be tiny, but this summer’s anti-government protests are making a global impact. The debate about the proposed extradition bill and related demonstrations have brought a stark dose of reality to the social media news feeds of many expats who may have taken little interest in Hong Kong politics until recently.
Hong Kong attracts all nationalities to live and work, around half a million people of non-Chinese or Hong Kong nationality reside in Hong Kong. While newspaper opinion pieces speculate about what’s next for Hong Kong, how do Hong Kong’s expat community feel about what’s happening here?
Where Do Expats Fit In?
The expatriate community includes a diverse range of nationalities, ages and stories. Some have lived here for decades and some will only stay to see out a short term employment contract. But the majority of expatriates have one thing in common – they love Hong Kong’s vibrant energy, dramatic cityscape and outstandingly beautiful natural environment. HK expats are often accused of living in a shallow, privileged bubble and not integrating into local society. To some extent that’s a fair cop, as very few of us learn Cantonese and we do tend to clump together with fellow foreigners.
Having said that, I’ll challenge the stereotype of the expat with few thoughts beyond the size of the next bonus and where to spend it, it’s nowhere near the reality of most of the down to earth and well-rounded expats that I know. Most of us understand that the local Hong Kong people make the city what it is, and are deeply saddened by the state of Hong Kong in recent months, and not just because of self-interest.
For or Against?
As one told me “I’ve had in-depth family discussions we wouldn’t have necessarily had in the past” and even “shed a few tears over it and questioned my scruples and morals on the current situation”. Many expats feel extremely moved by the determination and courage shown by Hong Kongers at the peaceful mass demonstrations this summer (and a fair few expats also joined in, because ultimately the extradition bill impacts us all).
Despite being in the privileged position of having foreign passports and a potential ‘plan B’, expats are following events and arguments closely and I found that most broadly support the struggle to maintain Hong Kong’s current freedoms. The majority are supportive of peaceful demonstrations and some can even understand the motivations behind more aggressive protests – although they don’t approve of the approach and think it’s likely counter-productive.
I’ve not met any expats who are happy with the proposed extradition bill, which would have worrying implications for anyone living in the city. In fact, lots of expats also back the call for greater democracy in Hong Kong, but few see much prospect of that demand ever being met.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
The truth is that Hong Kong’s expat community love Hong Kong (and have a pretty nice lifestyle here) and it would take something major for them to feel pushed to up and leave. Day to day life for most of Hong Kong’s expats goes on pretty much as normal, just with a closer following of the news and social media to stay informed about potential areas to avoid.
Many are nervous about the long term economic impact and job security though. As yet not much has changed on this front, but the longer the uncertainty continues the more of us will start to feel the pinch. The majority of us expats are here for economic reasons, so job security may be the deciding factor for many when weighing up whether to stay or go. Indeed, some small business owners and freelancers are already feeling the impact.
Is Hong Kong Still a Safe Place to Live?
One thing that makes Hong Kong such an attractive expat haven is that it feels extremely safe, with low rates of violent crime. But how safe are we feeling now? When I asked around the expat community online, the feedback I got is that most are still feeling safer here than they would back ‘home’. While news reports may have made Hong Kong look akin to a war zone at times over the past few weeks, the reality is that any violence has been contained to small areas and is easy to avoid for most.
Emotions Running High
Emotionally though people are feeling anxious and uncertain about what the future holds as China tightens its grip on the city. For many it’s an emotional rollercoaster, whilst feeling hopeful and confident at times, at other times scenes of violence and brutality make it difficult to remain positive.
2047 no longer seems so distant and this has prompted some soul searching. Many a foreign national has put down roots and raised a family here in Hong Kong, and one long term expat of 25 years told me that despite the anti-government protests being very much front of mind “I still feel very proud to say “I live in Hong Kong” and I won’t be going anywhere for a long time!”.
But others will make their exit from Hong Kong sooner than they may have originally planned. As one told me “the protests haven’t affected my plans but the impending pressure from China does” and another said “we were planning to leave Hong Kong within a year anyway but now feel like we are abandoning the city we’ve called home… However, we don’t want our children to live in China and can see that’s the way things are going.”
So while most still feel safe and comfortable in Hong Kong for the short term, there’s a sense that some expats are considering their longer-term position or perhaps bringing forward exit plans they already had in place. For those more recently arrived in Hong Kong, sticking around for 7 years to get Permanent Resident status is currently looking less attractive than it used to. One expat of 2 years told me that “although my day to day life hasn’t been affected at all it has made me think about how long I will stay here and if I would put down longer-term roots here.”
Time for Some Soul Searching
The unrest of summer 2019 has forced Hong Kong’s expatriate community to expand their worldview and explore the relationship between Hong Kong and China a little more closely. It’s no longer enough to cruise along and simply enjoying life in Hong Kong, it’s time for expats to take a more thoughtful look at Hong Kong society and their place in it. One thing’s for sure, the people of Hong Kong are making their voice heard worldwide, and that includes among their non-local neighbours here in Hong Kong too.