SYDNEY/SINGAPORE (REUTERS) - Many Hong Kong residents are scouring for new jobs and homes overseas, fearful that a new national security law imposed by Beijing will crush coveted rights not enjoyed on the mainland and herald a new authoritarian era for China's freeest city.
Beijing bypassed the city's legislature to approve the law directly this week, heightening anxiety over its impact on the former British colony of 7.4 million people that is a global financial hub and gateway for capital flows in-and-out of China.
Immigration lawyers and consultants, property agents and recruitment groups from Australia to Canada all told Reuters they were inundated with enquiries from Hong Kong residents.
"Hong Kong demand for international real estate and residency programmes has rocketed over the past few weeks," said Georg Chmiel, executive chairman of international property portal Juwai IQI, in a statement to Reuters.
"We see it in Malaysia, Australia, the UK, Thailand, Canada, Vietnam and the Philippines."
Juwai does not disclose numbers of enquiries, but did say Australia was the top foreign real estate investment location for Hong Kong buyers in the first half of 2020.
While leaving Hong Kong has traditionally been an alternative for the wealthy and foreign passport-holders, more middle- and working-class people are now also seeking options, especially where visas come cheaper.
Lily Chong, a real estate agent in Western Australia who markets developments to investors in Asia, said enquiries from Hong Kong shot up more than 40 per cent since mid-June and more than 140 potential buyers took part in an online forum last weekend.
"After just a few days, we have already closed one sale sight-unseen," added Chong, managing director of IQI Western Australia.
After weathering often violent, mass anti-Beijing protests since last year, China says the new law is aimed at a small minority of troublemakers and will not erode the legal rights making Hong Kong such a popular financial centre.
ECHOES OF 1997 EXODUS
But critics believe it is aimed at quashing dissent and will inevitably erode freedoms under the "one country, two systems" formula agreed when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, an event that also sparked an exodus.
The law punishes crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison, and already within hours of its implementation, 10 people were arrested on Wednesday during disturbances.
After a first rush of enquiries about overseas possibilities when China proposed the law on May 21, the volume has surged again over the past 10 days as its implementation happened.
As well as Australia and former colonial ruler Britain, residents are seeking a new life in cheaper countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines.
Hong Kong's financial rival Singapore is generating high interest too.
Andrew McNeilis, managing director for Asia at recruitment firm Phaidon International, said his firm had seen strong demand from Hong Kongers for Singapore, while it was becoming harder to convince people to go the Chinese city.
"The new security law may result in an exodus of local talent," agreed Victor Filamor, partner at executive search firm Stones International in Hong Kong, though he stressed it was too early to know the law's effects.
Fuelling the scramble, Britain, Australia, the United States and Taiwan have all proposed measures to help accommodate Hong Kongers looking to resettle.
The day the law came into force, Taiwan opened an office to help Hong Kongers who may wish to go there.
Those looking to relocate to Canada are finding that Ottawa's strict coronavirus controls are making it particularly hard to get in, immigration lawyers told Reuters.
Refugee claims from Hong Kong in the first three months of 2020 did, however, nearly triple to 25 compared to all of 2019, Canadian government data shows.
Stung by the offers of help for Hong Kong's people, China has warned foreign governments against meddling.