A family pose for a photo before entering the departures hall for their flight to Britain at Hong Kong's International Airport on July 18, 2021, the day before a deadline by the British government to allow Hong Kongers the right to visit the UK if not eligible to enter under an existing immigration route. Photo: AFP / Bertha Wang

Hong Kong’s population declined by 87,100, or 1.18%, as of mid-2021 from a year earlier, an exodus driven by the tightening political environment and a decline in the number of foreign domestic workers.

The population of all age groups fell to 7.39 million in the middle of this year from 7.48 million a year ago, according to the Census and Statistics Department.

Paul Yip, a professor at the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong, cited the latest population figures and the scenes of many Hong Kong families leaving for the UK at the airport.

There was no doubt that there had been an increase in the number of people emigrating, he said.

The latest emigration wave would lead to a brain drain and exacerbate Hong Kong’s demographic decline, putting even more burden on the social welfare and healthcare systems in the city.

Those leaving Hong Kong were largely professionals and had higher skills than newcomers mostly from the mainland, he claimed. The government should try to understand and address the concerns of those leaving Hong Kong to retain talent and maintain the city’s long-term competitiveness, Yip added.

The Census and Statistics Department said the decline was partly caused by a natural reduction of 11,800 people as 50,400 people died while 38,500 babies were born during the period. The net outflow of people amounted to 75,200, the statistics showed. Excluding 13,900 mainland immigrants, the number of people who left the city totaled 89,200.

Meanwhile, HK$6.6 billion (US$848 million) worth of funds had been withdrawn from April 2020 to March this year by people who claimed they’d be leaving Hong Kong permanently, according to the Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Authority’s latest annual report. The figure is 27% higher than the previous financial year and the highest on record.

Since early last year, an exodus has been seen in Hong Kong as most protests were banned for public health reasons amid the first epidemic wave. The tightening political environment came after anti-extradition protesters and police clashed in 2019. Between June 9, 2019, and February 28, 2021, a total of 10,242 people involved in the 2019 anti-extradition protests were arrested, according to Hong Kong’s Department of Justice.

The trend was fueled by the implementation of the National Security Law on June 30, 2020. Initially, many people who hold foreign passports were leaving the territory. More Hong Kong families departed for the United Kingdom, which started issuing British National (Overseas) visas to Hong Kongers from January 31 this year. With the visas, they can become British citizens after staying in Britain for six years.

The number of people aged below 59 decreased by 224,600 in Hong Kong for the 18 months ended mid-2021. The decline was partly caused by the fact that fewer domestic helpers could enter the city amid the pandemic. At the end of last year, the number of domestic workers fell by 25,436 to 373,884 from 399,320 a year ago, according to the Immigration Department.

The Hong Kong government suspended flights from the Philippines in April and Indonesia in June; both countries are sources of domestic workers. From early August, it allowed vaccinated helpers to land in the city but they still have to be quarantined for 21 days.

New immigrants coming from the mainland helped replenish the city’s population. Last year, 36,527 mainlanders were granted one-way permits to move to Hong Kong. Most of them were Hong Kong people’s mainland wives aged between 25 and 44 and their children.

However, as some one-way permit holders might have returned to their home cities or delayed their migration plans, net growth of new immigrants amounted to only 10,100 people last year.

During the past 18 months, the number of people aged between 5 and 19 in the city dropped by 24,500. The decline matched the figures announced by the Education Bureau, which said 15,000 primary and secondary school students plus thousands of international school students had quit during the 2020/21 academic year.

Meanwhile, the population aged 60 or above surged by 98,500 during the 18 months to mid-2021.

The Hong Kong government said the decline in total population did not necessarily indicate a high degree of emigration. It said the drop was partly attributed to a natural decrease, whereby the number of deaths was higher than the number of births.

It also blamed the Covid-19 pandemic and stringent border restrictions for deterring people – such as One-way Permit holders, foreign domestic helpers, students and workers – from coming to Hong Kong.

“Net movement, which includes the movement of Hong Kong residents into and out of Hong Kong for various purposes including work and study, is conceptually different from immigration and emigration,” the spokesman said.

“Being an international city, Hong Kong’s population has always been mobile. During the past 10 years, net outflows of Hong Kong residents other than One-way Permit holders were recorded for most of the years.”

On July 18, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in a radio program she felt sorry to see the loss of talent but it was normal for Hong Kong people to choose to move to other places for their own and their children’s needs as they enjoyed freedom of movement.

Lam added that emigrants would regret it in the future as they would miss out on the huge opportunities in Hong Kong and the Greater Bay Area.

Lam said also in June that Hong Kong would attract a large amount of young talent from the mainland and other foreign places while the government would help local elderly people to enjoy their retirement on the mainland.

Read: HKers speed up exodus as UK changes rules

Read: US gives sanctuary to fleeing Hong Kong dissidents