Hong Kong residents have engaged in widespread protests for the past year in opposition to increased Chinese Government control. In the last few weeks, the Chinese Government has introduced a new security law restricting civil liberties in Hong Kong, bypassing the territory’s own parliament. Just last Thursday, on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, thousands gathered to recognize the legacy of June 4, 1989, despite an official ban on gatherings. Many in Hong Kong now rightfully fear that Hong Kong’s autonomy, freedoms, and way of life will soon disappear.
In response, the United Kingdom has proposed granting British National Overseas (BNO) passport-holders the right to live and work in the United Kingdom for renewable 12-months periods, with a pathway to citizenship. This unprecedented offer will be available to the roughly 350,000 current BNO passport-holders, as well as possibly nearly 3 million Hong Kong residents who are eligible for a BNO passport. Last week, we found widespread approval for this decision among the UK public, despite a general hard-line attitude towards increased levels of immigration.
Around the same time, from the 4th of June to the 7th of June, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies polled more than 1,000 Hong Kong residents to determine how many may actually leave Hong Kong, and how many would then choose to move to the UK. We found considerable interest in leaving Hong Kong, with 46% of respondents saying they are considering moving elsewhere.
Such a figure amounts to nearly half of the Hong Kong public, a stunning number. Nevertheless, there is a difference between ‘considering’ and actually moving to somewhere else. Of those who are thinking of leaving, 38% say they are, at least, ‘reasonably likely’ to leave within the next year, which is around 17% of the entire sample. That number is still a significant proportion and thus reflects the extent to which Hong Kong residents fear Chinese Government repression and are widely pessimistic about future of the territory and its autonomy.
A plurality of all respondents (including those not considering leaving) cited political security (47%) as a key reason to leave Hong Kong, followed by the desire for more physical space (43%). Respondents were allowed to select more than one option. What is clear, then, is that Hong Kong residents considering leaving are motivated not exclusively by political considerations, but also by very tangible material constraints such as the limited availability and high cost of living space in Hong Kong.
When given a list of potential destination countries, 32% of respondents said they would consider migrating to the UK. This positions the UK as the second most popular destination for Hong Kong residents who plan to leave, second only to Taiwan, which is geographically closer and naturally shares somewhat more cultural ties with Hong Kong than the UK. Given that there are around 6 million adult residents in Hong Kong, this means that there are around 900,000 (around 15%) considering leaving for the UK. This number includes respondents who are considering multiple destinations and, again, not all who consider leaving will, in the end, leave, but it is indicative of the upper bound of what migration from Hong Kong to the UK could be.
The UK and also Taiwan are appealing destinations for Hong Kong residents due to their historical and cultural ties to Hong Kong, as well as their protection of civil liberties. Likewise, the governments of both the UK and Taiwan have taken steps to grant residence rights and protections to Hong Kong residents. Similar to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s promise last week, Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen said her government would “draw up a humanitarian assistance action plan for Hong Kong citizens that lays out clear, complete plans for their residence, placement, employment, & life in Taiwan as soon as possible.”
Our poll found that the majority of Hong Kong respondents have a favourable view for Taiwan’s government (53%) and a plurality have a favourable view of the UK government (43%). By contrast, 41% of respondents have an unfavourable view of their own Hong Kong government, and 43% have an unfavourable view of the Chinese Government—the plurality, in both cases. This aligns with the current sentiment of protests in Hong Kong.
Notably, 50% of respondents have a favourable view of Japan’s government, but it ranks third as a potential new home (21% of those who are considering leaving cite Japan as a destination they would consider moving towards). This difference is likely due to the comparatively easier processes of moving to Taiwan or the UK given the government actions in Taiwan and the UK in recent weeks. Likewise, Hong Kong has more cultural and linguistic ties with Taiwan and the UK than with Japan.
Although the UK is likely to see an influx of Hong Kong residents in the next few years, it remains to be seen what the scale of the migration will be. Our polling results suggest that up to 900,000 Hong Kong residents would consider leaving Hong Kong for the UK as the situation stands today. Given that the UK Government has suggested its new BNO policy might apply to the up to 3 million Hong Kong residents eligible for a BNO passport, the figure appears reasonable. However, this figure is a high upper bound.
Beyond the developing situation, much will depend on the actions that other countries take, such as Taiwan, which Hong Kong residents view very favourably and whose government is also taking action to welcome Hong Kong residents. For now, as only 38% of respondents considering leaving say they are at least reasonably likely to leave Hong Kong in the near future, and given that other countries are also offering refuge to Hong Kong residents, the final figure will likely be closer to 100,000 (and possibly even less) than to the high upper bound of 900,000.
More polling results from our research in Hong Kong to come.
 16% of respondents to our sample said they had BNO Passports, and another 6% said they had a British Passport (though they may have misunderstood that the BNO is separate from the British Passport). A considerable number of non-BNO Passport holders expressed an interest in applying for the BNO Passport, including some below the age of 23 who, in fact, may not be eligible for the passport. Given the confusion on these numbers, we do not include them in our analysis here, but nonetheless make note of it in this footnote.