Hong Kong expats vow not to quit city yet, but they have a ‘plan B’

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Hong Kong expats vow not to quit city yet, but they have a ‘plan B’

The ongoing civil unrest in Hong Kong has not yet triggered an exodus of expatriate banking professionals, although many would consider looking for jobs in Singapore, if the crisis were to escalate further.

While expat bankers are often stereotyped as mercenaries – who are quick to uproot and are only in Hong Kong to enjoy low tax rates – the foreigners we spoke with are all committed to their lives in the territory and said it would be hugely disheartening to move. “Many of us have been here for decades and have families here, so  it’s our home that’s affected by the unrest. This current situation doesn’t represent the Hong Kong we all love,” says one longtime UK expat, adding that most expats want both sides of the conflict to work closer together to find a peaceful resolution.

Others echoed his comments, saying that if Hong Kong were just a convenient business location, rather than a great place to live, it would be easier to up sticks. “The clashes between police and protestors stand out like a sore thumb compared with the many advantages of living here,” says a banking technology professional from India. While Hong Kong is better known for its urban landscapes (even more so now as images of street demonstrations are broadcast around the world) he says many expats spend weekends enjoying the hills, beaches and hiking trails of its underpopulated hinterlands. “The great access to both nature and the city here is amazing,” he adds.

Another, more prosaic, reason why overseas finance professionals aren’t clamouring to leave is the comparative resilience of the job market in banking and technology. Hong Kong’s economy is slipping into recession as the weeks-long unrest hammers sectors such as tourist and retail, but recruiters we spoke with recently said the impending launch of virtual banks is helping to drive vacancies in the finance sector. “I’m in fintech, and I’m not seeing any direct impact of the protests yet on my market, but my friends running food and beverage firms are suffering,” says a European expat, commenting on why quitting Hong Kong doesn’t make sense for him.

Meanwhile, many expat finance professionals live in affluent areas such as Discovery Bay and Repulse Bay, where protests aren’t flaring up. They can avoid weekend demonstrations by not going out in flashpoint areas like Wan Chai and Causeway Bay. While expats say their lives have been disrupted (working from home because of MTR shutdowns is becoming more common), these inconveniences aren’t yet serious enough to make them pack their bags. “Most days, I don’t even know the protests are on unless I read about them, especially in the Western media, which has become obsessed with them,” says the UK expat, adding that he’s not trying to downplay the seriousness of Hong Kong’s political crisis.

Another British expat says he would almost certainly leave Hong Kong if violence became hard to avoid and his personal safety was put at risk. “But that’s not the case now, as I can make sure I don’t go near the protests and the police. I still feel safer on most Hong Kong streets than I do in London,” he adds. This statement is hard to quantify, although there were 132 victims of homicide in London last year, compared with 48 in Hong Kong (of whom 19 died in a bus crash), a city with a similar population.

But it’s not just about safety; other expats cite different factors that would force them to abandon Hong Kong. “The general sentiment is that people will leave if there are severe changes in the status of Hong Kong – especially curbs on existing freedoms, particularly freedom of expression online,” says an expat from South Africa, adding that his personal tipping points would include government restrictions on air travel and transferring money abroad.

For now, however, there’s just “talk” in the expat banking community about leaving, if these kinds of tipping points are eventually reached, says an expat banker turned-headhunter. “There’s not much action yet, but people are definitely exploring backup options,” he says. “A lot of expats are at least considering the idea of a plan B, but they haven’t moved yet,” adds Benjamin Quinlan, a former UBS banker who’s now a consultant in Hong Kong.

The people we spoke with expect Singapore to be the preferred destination, if more expats decide to quit Hong Kong in the future. Most Hong Kong expats have built their careers in Asia over several years and don’t want to let that market expertise go to waste by leaving the region and returning home. Moving to Singapore would also mean they wouldn’t have to ditch their current lifestyles (think swish apartments, cheap home help, and long weekends in Thailand). “London just isn’t that appealing,” says the second UK expat, citing Brexit, bad weather, and the city’s distance from vibrant Asian markets.

Whether Hong Kong expats could find work in Singapore is another question. New Goldman Sachs research notes that up to US$4bn in Hong Kong dollar deposits flowed into Singapore in the year to end-August, although that’s a comparatively modest figure and GS didn’t directly link it to the protests. Moreover, not many jobs in finance are moving from Hong Kong to Singapore. You might find a few small fintech or buy-side firms relocating people, but large banks aren’t shifting hundreds of roles to the Republic just yet.

Senior front-office bankers whose clients are in North Asia may struggle to find jobs of the same calibre 2,600km away in Singapore, while more junior expats may encounter problems obtaining working visas as the Singapore government continues to prioritise jobs for locals. “It’s not like Singapore will just automatically welcome a lot of people from Hong Kong,” says the banking tech professional. “Moving out of Hong Kong isn’t that simple, even if you want to, which many people don’t. Most expats like me will simply wait and hope things in Hong Kong get better, peacefully,” he adds.

Image credit: Samuel Chan, Unsplash

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