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Emigration is not meant for everybody, especially the middle class

The idea of emigration is pervasive in Hong Kong, especially after Beijing announced new national security law for Hong Kong. The said law, according to Beijing, only targets “a small group of people” but obviously raises enormous fears among the wider local community of an imminent threat from China.

Google Trends shows a surge in searches for “migration” in Hong Kong in the past week. This has revealed a massive spike in interest in moving out of Hong Kong in search of a better future.

However appealing the idea of emigration is, it is not in itself good for everybody. For people on both ends of the poverty spectrum, emigration might be a good idea. For the ultra-rich, emigration often functions as a strategy to escape a country’s economic or political tensions or for tax purposes. For the less well-off who manage to migrate, emigration may be a springboard for success as they widen their social contexts in which they live and work.

Yet, for the middle class caught somewhere in-between, especially those who cling to the hope that they can use their savings to exchange for a better or at least the same standard of living abroad, emigration can be upsetting.

Beyond doubt, the Hong Kong middle class possess the resources and capabilities needed to put plans into action when it comes to migration. But precisely because of this, they should think more carefully when they make the decision to migrate.

Some middle-class people are aware that living conditions abroad may not be comparable to those in Hong Kong after immigration, especially in material terms. However, they think this can be compensated by a sound welfare system (medical insurance, unemployment relief, etc.) abroad, plus an increase in earnings as they earn foreign currency.

It could be true ten years ago, but not anymore. First, the income tax in Hong Kong is extraordinarily low, making Hong Kong’s middle class’s after-tax income already among the highest in the developed world. This is not to mention the not-bad-at-all earnings on paper. Second, the US dollar has continued to surge against currencies of several popular immigration countries, and it remains to be seen what will happen when the trade war is over. No one therefore can tell whether anyone can have a substantial increase in income from earning foreign currencies.

Of course, migration is a long-term process, and it takes at least some months, if not several years, to get the papers done. Yet, owing to the pandemic and the resultant shrinking world trade and increase in protectionist policies, prices in some common destination countries are expected to rise. Therefore, middle class people who do not have adequate capital should not have false hopes that their real available income will rise after migration.

“Working middle class”, whom I broadly refer to the middle levels—officials or middle-ranking managers of all sort who work as salaried employees in various industries, should be especially mindful when deciding whether to migrate. The compound effects of Covid-19 and turbulent domestic political dynamics have already been felt in the soaring unemployment rates in many destination countries. As of April 2020, according to Trading Economics, the unemployment rates in the USA, Australia, and Canada are 14.7%, 6.2% and 13% respectively, while that of Hong Kong is 5.2%. This implies that securing a job in the job market of these countries is by no means easier than in Hong Kong. This is something the working middle-class should pay heed to.

Another thing the working middle-class should take note of is the glass ceiling effect. The thinking behind the “glass ceiling” notion implies that minorities, such as immigrants and ethnic minorities, as they advance within an organisation, will sooner or later bump into an unwritten barrier that prevents them from advancing to managerial- and executive-level positions. Traditional middle class, which normally undertake middle to higher-level positions here in Hong Kong, will likely face more earnings disparity after migrating to Western countries, especially at the top of the distribution.

Of course, things differ from case to case. I am not writing off the possibility of middle-class people rising to the top. Instead, I am trying to point out a few things they might not be aware of when they make the decision to migrate.

Leaving is easy, but what is the point of leaving if you will end up returning someday? According to Kee and Skeldon (1994), more than one-third of those who left Hong Kong during the 80s returned around and after 1997. Australia’s census data even shows, between 1994 and 2005, more people actually returned to Hong Kong from Australia than leaving Hong Kong—a total of 33,905 Hong Kong citizens had migrated to Australia, while a total of 34,248 Hong Kong immigrants to Australia returned to Hong Kong during 1994-2005.

I am absolutely pro-migration. I have strong belief in that migration, like international trade, can benefit both migrant-sending and receiving countries in “normal times”. Having said that, I call on everyone, not just the middle class, to think twice before considering migration.

Migration is good, but it might not be good for everyone. Consult a friend, or a friend’s friend who has had a family member who migrated elsewhere and returned to Hong Kong after 1997. Ask why he or she left, and why he or she came back. You will then have a clearer picture of how the after-migration life looks like.


[Kee, P.K. and Ronald Skeldon. 1994. The migration and settlement of Hong Kong Chinese in Australia. In Reluctant exiles? Migration from Hong Kong and the new overseas Chinese. Edited by Ronald Skeldon. New York: ME. Sharpe and Hong Kong University Press.]

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