Did millions of Hong Kongers move to stay in mainland China?

Written by Nick Summers, CNN Hong Kong

In the 1990s, the combination of a public health scare and the end of a repressive regime in the west inspired millions of Europeans to emigrate to the new country of Hong Kong . Subsequent research into that era found that eight million people — 10% of the city’s population — were born overseas.

But after an extended survey, a team of researchers from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) have disproved that common notion.

Professor Shannon Lough of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Credit: Sam Yeh

The original figure, based on a survey of more than 800,000 people, was disputed by other experts in the field and until now had never been confirmed.

To find the truth about the way people choose to settle, Prof. Shannon Lough and her team re-analyzed 1,500 national census records, looking for data on births, deaths and overall residency, to compare the rise in offshore resident births to events and political changes.

The team used Facebook data for transparency

The origins of this thought process lie in the more modern studies that the team undertook. When they had done this, it emerged that 18-35-year-olds in the early 1990s were moving to Hong Kong as the fledgling city worked out how to accommodate new arrivals and fill empty buildings and warehouses.

Interestingly, since the beginning of the century the public health scare surrounding anthrax and various forms of SARS — collectively known as the “Asian flu” — would have likely prompted many people to stay in a country that was restricted in allowing new entries, with some in Hong Kong saying they were sickened by exposure to SARS in recent years.

However, this did not account for the extra few million population of people born abroad, who were relocated to Hong Kong.

‘Criticality’ on Facebook

Even when people did move from overseas in the early 1990s, most often to live in Hong Kong’s southern district of New Territories, their historic villages on mainland China were depopulated.

“People had many more choices in mainland China, like working in building sites, or working in factories, or manufacturing, or working as teachers, to help keep people in the cities,” says Lough.

“A part of our methodology was understanding how often people were transiting between mainland and Hong Kong. That was probably the only times there wasn’t a cohort of people coming and going from mainland to Hong Kong,” she said.

Lough says these findings point to a much larger population than initially believed in those who came for new jobs, rather than to make new friends.

“What’s true of most migrations is you pick the places you like, and you move where you’re happy to go. But in the 1990s, people were more constrained. Hong Kong was a place of choice, more so than other places. In the 1970s, international migrants had very little choice, so it was very difficult to choose Hong Kong,” she said.

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