Bold steps required fast to stem talent flight

Conversation among passengers arriving in Hong Kong last month was downbeat. An expat teacher standing behind me told me her contract was up for renewal in December, and if quarantine was still in place, she wouldn’t renew. 

With an elderly mother back home, Hong Kong’s travel restrictions were making it too hard a place to live. Another family spoke about how sad this year had been, seeing so many friends leave.

The fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit Hong Kong hard in terms of fatalities, but it also saw a significant departure of expats, particularly at senior levels in financial services and other sectors. Helen Corke, the CEO of recruitment consultancy Charlotte Frank, part of Elliott Scott Group, says, “There has been a great loss of talent to other Asian cities over the last 18 months due to the practical and emotional impact of COVID.”

At the end of the school year, my eldest child’s class had 13 children left; my youngest’s had five. Families had simply moved on to places where life felt easier and travel was simpler.

My husband and I, flying back into Hong Kong via an extended stop in Singapore, marveled at the difference in arrival experience. While a large part of Hong Kong’s airport has turned into a makeshift testing and processing facility with shops and restaurants shuttered, Changi Airport operates as normal. No testing, no quarantine — if you are fully vaccinated, you can easily enter and travel around the city.

Singapore now has tourists again, a concept that feels rather alien here. One really needs to want to come to Hong Kong to be prepared to put up with the barrage of PCR tests, hotel quarantine and the possibility of being transferred to an isolation facility. For those who can do the same job elsewhere, more and more are struggling to see reasons to stay.

In general, Asia has been slower than Europe and the United States to drop travel restrictions, but Singapore has been notable in quickly pressing ahead with a return to normalcy and seizing the advantage. Corke adds, “There is a real talent grab going on. Singapore has made clear decisions and recent changes to their working visa policy to attract top talent.”

Hong Kong’s arrival process has now improved; the airport wait is shorter. But in that time, Singapore has also made strides forward: it has dropped the mask mandate and introduced significant visa changes. The global talent that Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu is looking to “snatch” often comes with families, and spouses who work too. This can’t be ignored. When moving jobs, family well-being will be high up on the list of deciding factors for many top executives. As Singapore pushes ahead, this puts it in prime position to tap into that market.

Inability to travel is certainly a significant issue, but the constant disruption to education, the fear of separation from your children at a hospital, or an enforced stay at an isolation or close-contact center cannot be overlooked. The reality is that many are just not prepared to put up with the risk anymore.

Hong Kong’s children have really suffered as a result of numerous school closures and restrictions on activities over the last three years. The closures in January were the last straw for many expat families. In Singapore, I bumped into a friend who had moved from Hong Kong “after waiting and hoping for over two years that Hong Kong would ease restrictions in line with most of the world. We decided we didn’t want to continue to live ‘waiting’ ”, she told me. With local primary schools still on half-days, there is little confidence that education or maintaining face-to-face classes is a priority.

There is so much to love about life in Hong Kong — good jobs and salaries, good schools, beaches and mountains, fantastic restaurants, low crime — but now there is an undercurrent of tension; the expat life that once was feels tenuous and uncertain. As summer draws to a close, many expats will have spent weeks or even months away, without masks or restrictions. Some will be asking themselves, Was it worth it? The quarantine, the cost of returning. Is Hong Kong worth it?

Once seen as a dream posting, a glittering city full of excitement, Hong Kong is now a harder sell. Corke notes, “We are seeing businesses paying more to retain and attract the best talent.” For companies having to wrestle with bear-market planning, an expensive package in Hong Kong doesn’t seem such a smart investment move.

A city that should be, as President Xi Jinping put it, the business bridge between the Chinese mainland and the rest of the world, and which, pre-COVID-19, enjoyed unparalleled access to the mainland is at a critical juncture.

There are rumors that hotel quarantine will end in November, but that’s not so many months away, and there is no plan setting out how long restrictions will last or what the next steps will be.

Instead, the Hong Kong Open badminton tournament has just been canceled with quarantine cited; the cross-harbor swim and Hong Kong Marathon now look to be in jeopardy. It’s hard to see how Hong Kong can move forward as a tourism, business and transport hub. Because sports, like business, and schools and parents need to be able to plan, to know what’s coming next. The SAR government must act fast, and it needs to communicate clearly, before it’s too late.

The author is a freelance journalist now based in Hong Kong, after living and working in London for 17 years. She was born and raised in Hong Kong and has postgraduate degrees in Chinese studies and journalism.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.