Friday, June 02, 2006

The Great Exodus of 1962

I was a very pleased man last week. My wife and I were invited by our friend Blythe Yee to the quiz night of the Helena May last week Thursday, an institution originally established to provide housing for 'single women of moderate means' (It is quite different today). Blythe, a colorful and extremely knowledgeable journalist working at the Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, has always enjoyed these evenings, a battle of wits against other members over trivia questions of a most perplexing nature. As this year is the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Helena May, by the wife of then governor Sir Henry Francis May (and thanks to the generous donations of Sir Ellis Kadoorie and Ho Kom-Tong), the theme was to be the history of 1916, and of Hong Kong at that time.

We were slow out of the gates in the early rounds, but hung in the contest and gathered momentum, peaking near the finish to cause a 'sudden death' round due to a three-way tie for first place. My team members had been great, and answered many questions for which I had no idea, but because I know Hong Kong well I was selected to be our one representative. Luckily for us, the theme of the round was Hong Kong in 1916. The ultimate deciding question was: what was the population of Hong Kong in 1916? (Closest answer would win). The two redoubtable ladies competing with me both guessed 200,000. However, as I knew that the population on the eve of World War II was 1.1 million and that it was also double that of the eve of World War I, I guessed 550,000. We were the closest to the right answer of 535,000 and each of us took home a very drinkable bottle of Shiraz Cabernet.

Now the Hong Kong population has fluctuated wildly throughout its history, and other than the Japanese Occupation (which forced out half of the population to uncertain futures in China), population growth has largely been determined by the degree of calm or chaos in China. In a way, the history of Hong Kong's growth has been an opportunistic one at the expense of China, which is why it may be that people in China have often had a Janus-faced view of the city's success.

One of the great periods of unrest in China was in the aftermath of Mao Zedong's disastrous 'Great Leap Forward', an effort to industrialize the country at the collective level. There was a need for equilibrium in the PRC, and as more level-headed administrators regained control of the reins of government, such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, they realized that they not only needed to establish differences in wages, but also needed to release pressure with an 'escape valve'. So it was that in May 1962 (see photo by late LIFE magazine photographer Larry Burrows), the Communist cadres in Beijing turned a blind eye (and in fact authorized) the departure of a large number of refugees from behind the 'Bamboo Curtain' across the border to Hong Kong. As I started this entry with a reference to a journalist, it is only right that I provide you with a newspaper clipping, from the Far Eastern Economic Review (now defunct as a weekly news magazine but still run by Blythe's employer, Dow Jones, as a monthly opinion piece)a decade after the event:
The Great Exodus by Cheng Huan:

Hongkong: A decade ago this week Hongkong [they still used the old oneword spelling of the city then -Ed.] was host to the greatest concerted refugee influx in its often turbulent history. In the month of May 1962, more than 60,000 young Chinese were sent back across the border to Kwangtung. And although the Hongkong authorities have never released any figures to show just how many illegal immigrants were ultimately allowed to remain here, it is estimated that more than 1 million refugees have settled in Hongkong since 1950. In 1971 the "official" population of Hongkong was 3.9 million while in 1950 it was put at 2.3 million.

What caused the enormous 1962 exodus from China? In retrospect the major reason may have been the failure of the Great Leap Forward, compounded by the introduction of the commune system which resulted in serious food shortages and widespread fears of tougher economic and social policies. Yet most of the refugees were able-bodied, certainly not starving. If Peking has maintained diplomatic silence on the affair, it was clear then and now that the 1962 exodus had the capital's tacit acceptance. On one day alone (May 9) some 90% of those intercepted by the police held exit permits.

Since 1962 Hongkong has absorbed into its already sardine-packed area between 5,000 and 8,000 illegal immigrants annually. And although the colonial government can hardly be accused of ill-treating refugees - it has rehoused hundreds of thousands of people - there is in fact a legal obligation on Hongkong to accept a reasonable number of Chinese from China. An 1943 treaty laid down that all Chinese were to be allowed to enter Hongkong with complete freedom.

The odd fact is that no extensive and detailed study has ever been made on exactly why so many refugees have come, and continue to come, to Hongkong. Certainly there must be an element of truth in the widely-held belief that the young Chinese are simply disillusioned with China's rigid social and political system. On the other hand, the vast majority of the Chinese people have never known anything other than such a system. Similarly, the temptation of material prosperity in Hongkong and of minimal government control, though often voiced as obvious reasons for young people to want to come to Hongkong, may be exaggerations of the truth. More probably, it is in the events inside China at a particular moment that the root reasons lie. Once it was the excesses of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution that acted as the stimulus for emigration. Today, it may be renewed efforts to break up the family system and force members of the family to separate into different communes that acts as a major stimulus.

Nothing so determines a young person to "take up" a challenge as official restrictions forbidding him to do so. More than 70% of illegal immigrants who "declared" themselves to the Hongkong police in 1971 were aged between 17 and 25. For many young Chinese living just across the border from Hongkong, the challenge to reach Hongkong is one they evidently feel bound to meet.
The interesting thing these days, of course, is that Hong Kong's population is growing far slower than estimates of all the government planners. Part of the reason is the extremely low 0.8 birthrate of the Hong Kong population. But another major reason is that prosperous conditions in China are making it harder to get immigrants as excited by the idea of Hong Kong as they were previously. It is particularly hard for Hong Kong these days to get the best and brightest in China, for these people have daily less and less incentive to leave. This human resource crisis, it seems to me, puts more pressure on Hong Kong to be able to continue to attracting a large number of expatriates, whether Western, Indian or mainlanders, to want to live and be based here. These issues, it seems to me, will be key in determining whether Hong Kong will be a center of activity, or only play a marginalized role, in this 21st, dubbed the 'Pacific', century.


Anonymous said...


A quick comment on your 'The Great Exodus of 1962' post.

When you refer to a 'human resource crisis' in your last paragraph, and the necessity to attract more 'ex-pats' (or, as we Americans would call 'em, 'immigrants'), why? And I take your point about these immigrants coming largely from mainland China. Nonetheless, why can't a city of seven million generate the next generation. My question is, of course, somewhat rhetorical.

Fred Jacobsen
San Francisco

Dave and Stefan said...

Hi Fred,

Fair question. One major reason why Hong Kong cannot generate their own 'generation' is that they literally are not producing enough babies. The Hong Kong birth rate per couple is among the lowest in the world at 0.88, and is the lowest if you take out all the mainland women that have come to Hong Kong to have babies (at 0.6).

Another is if you look at the major industry that makes Hong Kong the international city it is, it is its financial services sector. There are almost no locals actually running any of these operations - they are largely being run by Westerners and mainlanders. The educational system of Hong Kong, which historically (and arguably still today) produces youngsters that are not wholly literate or expressive in either written Chinese or English, and are generally passed over for elite service sector jobs.

Lastly, there is a big difference between expats and immigrants. Immigrants go to a place and intend to stay for life, or at least for a long time. The standard expat goes to Hong Kong for 3-5 years (if not less) and has no intention of staying on for ever. The percentage that do is very low. Ultimately, those expats could be anywhere, and have no inherent loyalty to a place, unlike immigrants. They often do just move on when opportunities are more attractive elsewhere.

This is a major problem for Hong Kong, a city without a true hinterland. The other major cities of the world, whether New York, London, Paris, Sydney or Shanghai, have a hinterland of rural or nearby talent to draw from. Hong Kong has no such luxury, and if you study the history of the city, every generation of elites has come from somewhere else within a generation.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dave/Stefan,

0.6 . . . wow! That's low, perhaps unsustainable. Forgive my self-reference, but my two sisters-in-law are Hong Kong girls, and they have five children between the two of 'em.

You said:

"this is a major problem for Hong Kong, a city without a true hinterland . . . "

This makes sense to me, on one level. On another level, isn't the 'hinterland' mainland China?

Apparently, Beijing has more success in intercepting Chinese immigration into Hong Kong now than in the days when my Por Por's youngest sister was shot and killed floating down the Pearl River toward freedom.

I admit, I don't get it.

Fred Jacobsen
San Francisco

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