Shrinking Schools Add to Hong Kong Exodus

HONG KONG — Long before the school year began, Chim Hon Ming, a primary school principal in Hong Kong, knew this year’s student body would be smaller. The city’s birthrate had already been falling, and families were increasingly frustrated by Hong Kong’s strict pandemic restrictions and the political turmoil.

Even he was not prepared for the extent of the exodus. When school started last month in his district of western Hong Kong Island, the first-grade classes were about 10 percent smaller than the previous year’s — a decrease of more than 100 students.

“This drop came so quickly,” Mr. Chim said.

As Hong Kong has been battered by two years of upheaval, between the pandemic and a sweeping political crackdown from Beijing, many of the consequences have been immediately visible. Businesses have shuttered, politicians have been arrested, tourists have disappeared. One major change is just coming into focus: some residents’ determination that the city is no longer where they want to raise their children.

Last year, Hong Kong experienced a population drop of 1.2 percent, its biggest since the government began keeping records in the 1960s. From July 2020, when China imposed a national security law, through the following July, more than 89,000 people left the city of 7.5 million, according to provisional government data.

The number is likely to grow. Both times the government updated its provisional data for the past two years, the number of departing residents more than doubled.

Officials have not said how many of those departures were students. But they have offered at least one metric: Hong Kong’s primary schools will have 64 fewer first-grade classes this year than last, according to statistics released by the Education Bureau late last month after an annual pupil head count.

The figures seem to confirm a trend that educators have warned about for months. A survey in May by the city’s largest teachers’ union found that 30 percent of primary schools polled had seen more than 20 students withdraw. (The union, which was pro-democracy, recently disbanded under government pressure.) Another survey in March by a pro-Beijing union found that 90 percent of kindergartens had lost students, with more than half of principals citing overseas moves as a reason.

Administrators say the rate has accelerated since then, with some losing as much as 15 percent of their students after a summer of emigration. While many of the first-grade class cuts were planned in the spring, the bureau ordered that 15 more be trimmed after the September head count.

“They prefer their children to have more freedom of speech and to have more balanced education,” John Hu, an immigration consultant, said of parents. Mr. Hu said his business surged after the security law was enacted, and families with children made up about 70 percent of clients.

The exodus of residents has cut across society. Hong Kong already faced a doctor shortage, and in the 12 months ended in August, 4.9 percent of public hospital doctors and 6.7 percent of nurses had quit, many to emigrate, according to the hospital authority’s chairman. Residents leaving Hong Kong withdrew $270 million…

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