Published: 01:44, August 1, 2023 | Updated: 15:37, August 7, 2023
Hong Kong offers advantages as a home base over Five Eyes countries
By Richard Cullen

The Anglo-American group that has long maintained a cooperative, global security operation is widely known as the Five Eyes. The members are Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US. 

Over the decade following the 1984 signing of the Joint Declaration, which sealed Britain’s return of Hong Kong to China, a significant number of Hong Kong residents migrated to Five Eyes jurisdictions. For several years preceding the resumption of exercise of sovereignty in 1997 and afterward, however, many of these migrants returned to Hong Kong.

The devastating insurrection that began in Hong Kong in mid-2019 was followed, in 2020, by certain far-reaching legal reforms designed to deal with its grave impact — principally, the National Security Law for Hong Kong, and the reform of the Legislative Council to restore it as a fully functioning legislative body.

Over the last few years, we have witnessed another wave of outward migration from Hong Kong following the “black shirt” political violence, the response measures and the COVID-19 pandemic, especially to the UK, Canada and Australia, all of which have put new incentives in place to encourage migrants from Hong Kong.

Yet there are good reasons to expect that we may see a repeat pattern of reverse migration to Hong Kong within this current decade. We could also see a lift in general inward migration levels.

Various factors are set to shape this development, but let’s investigate one pivotal set of factors: public fiscal health and public service provision.

First, consider these indicative, approximate figures (all in US dollars) on the public debt to GDP position across the Five Eyes: Australia public debt, $650 billion — over 40 percent of GDP; Canada public debt, $1.6 trillion — over 75 percent of GDP; New Zealand public debt, $80 billion — over 30 percent of GDP; UK public debt, $3.1 trillion — around 100 percent of GDP; and US public debt, $25 trillion — around 100 percent of GDP.

In every case, there has been a dramatic rise in public debt levels over the last several years as the Five Eyes governments sought to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, that debt is still rising and, with the major lift in global interest rates prompted by US Federal Reserve policymaking, the cost of servicing these huge debt loads is escalating significantly. Furthermore, policymaking in the US has triggered serious increases in stubbornly elevated inflation in all members of Five Eyes.

Next, consider service provision. Public facilities, especially health facilities, across all five jurisdictions are operating under seriously increased strain, especially in the UK. And the cost of basic utilities has gone through the roof. A major electricity provider in Australia, for example, has just advised its customers that its discount tariff will increase by 50 percent very shortly. Electricity in Australia already costs well over twice the charge per unit compared to Hong Kong, and soon it may be closer to four times more expensive. All other utilities in Australia — phone, water, gas, the internet and so on — are typically double the cost or more compared to Hong Kong. The price difference with public transport is especially pronounced — and service quality is often a shadow of that provided in Hong Kong.

The HKSAR has come through the pandemic after spending more generously than any of the Five Eyes to support its population with zero need to borrow a cent while still retaining fiscal reserves sufficient to fund an entire year of public expenditure. This level of fiscal soundness is inconceivable within any of the Five Eyes

Still more perilous for fiscal health within the Five Eyes group — and exceptionally dangerous for the entire world — is the now-frantic Western obsession with massively ramping up military spending, centered around the intense, confected “China Threat” discourse. Hundreds of billions of US dollars have already been freshly earmarked for this malevolent globalized project. The recklessly ill-conceived AUKUS project — set to cost an estimated $245 billion — provides a particularly shocking example.

William Astore, in a recent, withering article, highlighted how that liberal-flagship media outlet, The New York Times, is now boldly arguing through its columns that “higher military spending will save democracy”. Meanwhile, very shortly after her recent China trip, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told the Global South during a G20 finance ministers’ meeting that aiding Ukraine was “the single best thing we can do for the global economy”. This is extraordinary — but America knows best: War is good for you!

Where the US leads, the other Five Eyes members typically follow dutifully. But New Zealand, as a result of long-term, intelligent policymaking, has done a first-rate job, to date, of keeping a measurably greater distance between itself and surly Washington, compared to the other Five Eyes members — especially the unfortunate Australia. If you migrate, you must keep New Zealand in mind.

So, let’s take stock. The future right across these preferred migration jurisdictions is set to be one where huge public debt dominates. This debt is destined to rise and possibly soar as military spending escalates. Stubborn inflation persists. Living costs are comparatively very high, and military spending is already drawing funds away from badly needed future improvements to the widest range of public services, including hospitals, schools and public transport.

The other policy response not yet mentioned but inevitable is that already high (compared to Hong Kong) taxation rates will have to be boosted. In fact, this is already happening in Australia, where land taxation, for example, has just been conspicuously increased in the state of Victoria.

Finally, let’s quickly look at the comparable Hong Kong report card. The HKSAR has come through the pandemic after spending more generously than any of the Five Eyes to support its population with zero need to borrow a cent while still retaining fiscal reserves sufficient to fund an entire year of public expenditure. This level of fiscal soundness is inconceivable within any of the Five Eyes. Hong Kong, meanwhile, has, on average, safer and better schools, a very pleasant living environment, and superior infrastructure at all levels. Moreover, its public transport basically leaves those systems found across the Five Eyes in the dust. And annual inflation in Hong Kong has been contained at around 2 percent to date, as it has soared elsewhere.

One further major plus — Hong Kong spends zero percent of its GDP on maintaining a military force. That burden is carried entirely by Beijing. To give an idea of how much this saves, Singapore spends around 3 percent of its GDP on maintaining its military. Thus, Hong Kong has an extra US$18 billion available to spend on providing civilian services every year, compared to Singapore.

Housing remains an acute problem in Hong Kong, and health care is plainly stressed — but both of these matters are now being seriously addressed, especially since LegCo was rescued from its previous “clown hall” role and had once again become fully functional. But reliable figures also show that as critical as Hong Kong’s housing problem is, homelessness per capita is lower in the HKSAR than in any of the Five Eyes, including New Zealand and Australia.

If you have migrated to one of the Five Eyes with ample funds, the drawbacks should prove less concerning, and the real benefits should be more accessible. But none of these places can match Hong Kong’s collective comparative advantages, including extraordinary convenience and efficiency, safety, a warm climate — and, of course, exceptional food. If you have migrated on a tight budget, then you may already be feeling those drawbacks, and they are going to intensify.

As it happens, we have just had a fresh, acute reminder of what a fiscal-fix Five Eyes jurisdictions now find themselves in. A sudden, extraordinary announcement in Australia has very recently confirmed that the 2026 Commonwealth Games in Victoria are being canceled as a cost-cutting measure.

When you square the ledger carefully, the comparative attractions prompting reverse migration do look set to strengthen over the coming years.

The author is an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Law, Hong Kong University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.