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Business and Economy

Why many expats are choosing to no longer be based in Hong Kong

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

For decades, Hong Kong has been a financial capital like London and New York, a magnet for millions from around the world. But today, Hong Kong is a different place. Its autonomy from China has eroded, and its strict COVID-zero policy has made it a difficult place to do business. As NPR's David Gura reports, many expats say what made the city great is now gone.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: When Kevin Tranbarger was a kid, he and his family moved to Hong Kong, and he was awestruck...

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY AMBIENCE)

GURA: ...By the bustle of its central business district, by the beauty of its towering buildings set against the surrounding hillsides and by something else.

KEVIN TRANBARGER: One of the things that I loved about living there was it's a truly international place.

GURA: That is what brought Tranbarger back after college. Hong Kong was Tranbarger's home for almost three decades, as he traveled the world doing real estate development. But these days, he says, Hong Kong is different. China is wielding more control, and Hong Kong and mainland China have some of the most restrictive COVID policies in the world. At the end of every trip, Tranbarger, who traveled a lot, faced a mandatory weekslong quarantine in a hotel room.

TRANBARGER: It's inhumane in a way. The rooms are small. They're super expensive.

GURA: The quarantine can cost thousands of dollars. And despite the restrictions, in Hong Kong the case count is at its highest in two years. Last summer, Tranbarger decided he'd had enough. At the tail end of a two-month trip to the U.S., he decided not to go back.

TRANBARGER: So I sent for my stuff, and it's on ship. And after 27 years living in Hong Kong, I left without even knowing I was leaving and didn't say goodbye to anybody.

GURA: Now Tranbarger is preparing to start a new chapter in California. And he's not alone. Hong Kong is emptying out slowly, according to Tara Joseph. She's the outgoing president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, which represents more than 600 U.S. companies. And Joseph expects more attrition in the coming months after banks pay out bonuses and the school year ends. Joseph herself recently moved back to the U.S. after 30 years abroad.

TARA JOSEPH: A lot of people have left. A lot of people are considering leaving. Other people are just trying to stick it out. And there's no light at the end of the tunnel yet.

GURA: It's not just the COVID restrictions that have made life so difficult for many expats. China has clamped down on Hong Kong's openness.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Protesters in every direction. Traffic is blocked...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: They're angry, and they are committed to making their voices heard by the government...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: ...Police in riot gear who fired tear gas and...

GURA: After demonstrations in 2019 and 2020, it's now illegal to criticize China's government, and authorities have cracked down on the media. Private equity investor Scott Hancock and his family moved to Hong Kong from Australia in 2012. What appealed to them about the city was its dynamism and the business opportunities. But Hancock says he watched with alarm as freedom started to disappear, along with the city's spirit.

SCOTT HANCOCK: There's a lot less openness in conversation. People are more guarded about what they do from a business perspective.

GURA: Companies are also concerned about the rule of law. The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong says almost a third of its members are struggling to fill senior roles.

HANCOCK: I think it's changed dramatically. I don't think it will ever be the same place that it was before.

GURA: Hancock and his family moved again. Now they're in London. And while Hancock says he has fond memories of Hong Kong, right now he has no plans to go back.

David Gura, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DREEM'S "CHANGE OF TIMES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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