‘Do We Need to Be in Hong Kong?’ Global Companies Are Eyeing the Exits
Global companies are heading for rival cities such as Singapore and Shanghai
Global companies are heading for rival cities such as Singapore and Shanghai
Apprehensive about Hong Kong’s future as the best place to do business in China and beyond, multinational firms are pulling up stakes, adding to uncertainty about the outlook for one of the world’s premier commercial cities.
Buffeted by political upheaval, an authoritarian crackdown by mainland China and the pandemic, global companies and professionals are heading to rival business cities such as Singapore, and to Shanghai, the Chinese commercial hub some see as a better place to profit from the nation’s vast economy.
Ever since the U.K. returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, the city’s leaders have billed the semiautonomous territory as “Asia’s World City”—an open society with a British-style legal system where foreign professionals could feel at home. Today, Hong Kong is becoming less open and more fused to the mainland economy.
Some companies, including banks and other financial institutions, still view Hong Kong as crucial to their China-focused business models and are digging in for the future. Others are eyeing the exit, concluding the city no longer holds the prospects it once did.
“Being in Hong Kong always used to be a no-brainer,” said Frederik Gollob, chairman of the European Chamber of Commerce in the city. “Now, for the first time, businesses are having discussions around, do we need to be in Hong Kong?”
In a survey of members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong released last month, 42% of the 325 respondents said they were considering or planning to leave the city, citing uneasiness over China’s new security law and a pessimistic outlook of Hong Kong’s future.
Dozens of international companies have moved regional headquarters or offices from the city since 2019, government data show. That has contributed to the highest rate of commercial real estate vacancies in 15 years, with more than 80% of the vacant space surrendered by international companies, data compiled by Cushman & Wakefield show. All told, more people—expatriates and locals—departed the business hub in 2020 than any year since the global financial crisis.
In January, VF Corp., owner of Timberland, the North Face and other brands, said it was shutting its 900-person Hong Kong office after 25 years in the city. Japanese videogame maker Sony Interactive Entertainment has moved regional executives to Singapore. European luxury-goods company LVMH said it was relocating some Hong Kong-based employees from its Moët Hennessy liquor unit. French cosmetics giant L’Oréal also said it was relocating some staffers from its Hong Kong headquarters.
Hong Kong boosters predict that, once the pandemic lifts, the city will emerge stronger as its businesses profit from deeper integration with the mainland. Pessimists see it gradually atrophying around a few core industries useful to China, such as finance.
Hong Kong Commerce Secretary Edward Yau said the majority of foreign firms still believe that Hong Kong is the place for doing business, encouraged by growing opportunities with major Chinese cities. “We will continue to monitor the situation and provide the best help we can offer,” he said at a recent press conference, referring to the American Chamber of Commerce survey.
Under China’s long-term plan, Hong Kong will become part of a 70 million person “greater bay area” economic zone that includes the neighboring tech city of Shenzhen and the gambling mecca of Macau. Stephen Phillips, who runs Hong Kong’s investment promotion bureau, InvestHK, said that arrangement will become the economic engine for growth and a major business opportunity in the coming years.
He said the biggest issue for Hong Kong is getting through the Covid epidemic, and that China’s new security law for Hong Kong hasn’t had a major impact on business. “Each business will make its own decision,” he said. “But the vast majority don’t see it as a risk.”
Hong Kong once pitched itself as a bridge between East and West. Now, for some businesses, Hong Kong is no longer global enough to serve as a regional headquarters. For others focused on doing business in China, the city isn’t as tapped in to the mainland economy as Shanghai.
Denver-based VF is moving the Hong Kong positions responsible for its China sales and marketing to Shanghai, where they will be nearer the stores and giant online retailers crucial to its business. Employees responsible for managing its regional network of manufacturers and suppliers will relocate to Singapore, a Chinese- and English-speaking country of 5.7 million people with a strong business infrastructure. Although Singapore’s laws also limit free speech, it has an established free-market approach to business.
VF said its move reflected changing economic trends and efforts to better serve consumers, not China’s intervention in the city.
L’Oreal said it is building up in Singapore and Shanghai as it reduces its presence in Hong Kong. The restructuring, it said, is designed to give greater coherence to its business by creating a Southeast Asia, Middle East and North Africa zone run from Singapore, and a North Asia zone run from Shanghai.
Sony Interactive and Moët said they have moved some employees to Singapore. Both declined to comment further on their moves.
Hong Kong’s transformation accelerated in 2019 with mass demonstrations against Beijing’s intervention in the island that was meant to largely govern itself under a concept known as “one country, two systems.” Months of clashes between police and students shook the city’s reputation as a safe and stable place to do business.
Beijing cracked down on the protests in June 2020 and pushed through a national security law that granted the Chinese government power to intervene in Hong Kong’s legal system, while authorizing its secret police to enforce vague statutes such as against foreign collusion. On Friday, thousands of people defied a huge police presence and threats of jail to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
After China announced its crackdown, South Korean internet search company Naver Corp. said it was deleting its Hong Kong-based backup servers and moving them to Singapore to protect user data.
Technology companies including Facebook and Alphabet Inc.’s Google dropped plans to connect Hong Kong and the U.S. with undersea data cables after U.S. security officials signaled opposition to the plans.
At Asian Tigers Hong Kong, a relocation firm serving international executives, moves into Hong Kong have declined 50% since 2019, while moves out increased by 30%, said Chief Executive Rob Chipman, an American who moved to Hong Kong in the 1980s.
“I saw a lot of longtime Hong Kong stayers who were leaving, people like me who came out for a usual three-year stint and 30-years later are still here, loving it, married with kids, owning businesses,” Mr. Chipman said. “So even some of those people are saying, ‘Wait a minute, something’s going on here. Maybe it’s time to leave.’ ”
Some 40,000 more Hong Kong residents departed the city in 2020 than those who entered intending to reside there, government figures show. All told, Hong Kong’s population of about 7.5 million shrank by 46,500 in 2020—the second contraction since it was returned to China.
Sandra Boch, an Austrian mother of one who moved to Hong Kong 15 years ago to set up a specialty fabrics and stationery business, left in November. While the 2019 unrest disrupted her business, the 2020 national security law, she said, was the last straw. She packed up her business and moved to Singapore.
The law, she said, “was a clear sign from China that they are taking control of Hong Kong now, and everything will get more controlled from that point out. We no longer felt safe.”
British authorities have opened the doors for local holders of pre-handover U.K. passports to immigrate permanently to the U.K., and they estimate more than 300,000 Hong Kongers—about 4% of Hong Kong’s total population—may come over five years.
Hong Kong boosters predict companies that closed offices will be replaced by other firms moving in, including from mainland China. In the 12 months ending June 3, 2020, the latest information available, mainland Chinese companies opened 63 new regional headquarters and offices in Hong Kong, an increase of 12% from the year-earlier period. During the same period, U.S. companies—the biggest international presence in Hong Kong—closed 45 headquarters and offices, or 6% of their total, government figures show.
Falling rents in Hong Kong have attracted others to enter or expand, said Mr. Phillips of InvestHK. Japanese food retailer Don Don Donki and the French sporting-goods seller Decathlon both expanded in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong remains attractive to the financial-services industry. With its modern markets, freely convertible currency and connections to the mainland, Hong Kong is unrivalled when it comes to financing China. Mainland China’s newly minted superrich are an attractive target for Hong Kong-based wealth-management firms. A string of stock offerings by Chinese tech giants have put the Hong Kong exchange in the No. 3 spot globally for such listings.
U.K.-based banking giant HSBC Holdings PLC said in February it would invest $6 billion in its Hong Kong-based Asia business, of which Hong Kong is by far its most lucrative market.
Last year, HSBC’s Asia-Pacific head, Peter Wong, demonstrated support for Beijing’s national-security law after a Hong Kong politician said the bank could be punished unless it did. Later that year, it froze accounts of a prominent Hong Kong democracy activist who had fled the city.
Facing criticism from U.K. lawmakers who accused the bank of appeasing China, HSBC Chief Executive Noel Quinn told them that the bank didn’t drop customers or freeze accounts for political reasons, and reiterated the bank’s commitment to Hong Kong. HSBC declined to comment for this article.
Some large banks, although optimistic about continuing to do business in Hong Kong, are quietly running contingency scenarios to ascertain what they would do if they lost access to their Hong Kong infrastructure and had to operate out of another city, people familiar with such plans said.
“People ask, can I still do whatever I want and say whatever I want?” said Allan Zeman, a foreign-born real-estate developer who has advised Hong Kong’s current government and years ago gave up his Canadian passport for a China-issued one. “Yes. I still do whatever I want and say whatever I want, as long as I choose not to be an antagonist.”
Corrections & Amplifications
Hong Kong’s currency is freely convertible but is pegged to the U.S. dollar. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the Hong Kong dollar was free-floating. And Sandra Boch, an Austrian mother of one who moved to Hong Kong 15 years ago to set up a specialty fabrics and stationery business, left in November. An earlier version of this article misidentified her nationality, the number of her children and the month she left Hong Kong. (Corrected on June 7)
Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: June 6, 2021
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’
U.S. employees are more dissatisfied than they were in the thick of the pandemic
Americans, by many measures, are unhappier at work than they have been in years.
Despite wage increases, more paid time off and greater control over where they work, the number of U.S. workers who say they are angry, stressed and disengaged is climbing, according to Gallup’s 2023 workplace report. Meanwhile, a BambooHR analysis of data from more than 57,000 workers shows job-satisfaction scores have fallen to their lowest point since early 2020, after a 10% drop this year alone.
In interviews with workers around the country, it is clear the unhappiness is part of a rethinking of work life that began in 2020. The sources of workers’ discontent range from inflation, which is erasing much of recent pay gains, to the still-unsettled nature of the workday. People chafe against being micromanaged back to offices, yet they also find isolating aspects of hybrid and remote work. A cooling job market—especially in white-collar roles—is leaving many professionals feeling stuck.
Companies have largely moved on from pandemic operating mode, cutting costs and renewing a focus on productivity. The disconnect with workers has managers frustrated, and no quick fix seems to be at hand. Those in charge said they have given staff more money, flexibility and support, only to come up short.
The experiences of workers like Lindsey Leesmann suggest how expectations have shifted from just a few years ago. Leesmann, 38 years old, said she soured on a philanthropy job after having to return to the office two days a week earlier this year.
Prepandemic, she would have been happy working three days a week at home. “It would have been a dream come true.” Still, her team’s in-office requirements seemed like going backward, and made her feel that her professionalism and work quality were in doubt. Instead of collaborating more, she and others rarely left their desks, except for meetings or lunch, she said. Negative feelings followed her home on her hourlong commute, leaving her short-tempered with her kids.
“You try to keep work and home separate, but that sort of stuff is just impacting your mental health so much,” said Leesmann, who recently moved to a new job that requires five in-office days a month.
The discontent has business leaders struggling for answers, said Stephan Scholl, chief executive of Alight Solutions, a technology company focused on benefits and payroll administration. Many of the Fortune 100 companies on Alight’s client list boosted spending on employee benefits such as mental health, child care and well-being bonuses by 20% over the pandemic years.
“All that extra spend has not translated into happier employees,” Scholl said. In an Alight survey of 2,000 U.S. employees this year, 34% said they often dread starting their workday—an 11-percentage-point rise since 2020. Corporate clients have told him mental-health claims and costs from employee turnover are rising.
One factor is the share of workers who are relatively new to their roles after record levels of job-switching, said Benjamin Granger, chief workplace psychologist at software company Qualtrics. Many employers have focused more on hiring than situating new employees well, leaving many newbies feeling adrift. In other cases, workers discovered shiny-seeming new jobs weren’t a great fit.
The upshot is that the newest workers are among the least satisfied, Qualtrics data show—a reversal of the higher levels of enthusiasm that fresh hires typically voice. In its study of nearly 37,000 workers published last month, people less than six months into a job reported lower levels of engagement, feelings of inclusion and intent to stay than longer-tenured workers. They also scored lower on those metrics than new workers in 2022, suggesting the pay raises that lured many people to new jobs might not be as satisfying as they were a year or two ago.
“What happened to that honeymoon phase?” Granger said.
John Shurr, a 66-year-old former manufacturing engineer, took a job as an inventory manager at a heavy-equipment retailer in the spring in Missoula, Mont., after being laid off during the pandemic.
“It was a nice job title on a pretty rotten job,” said Shurr, who learned soon after starting that his duties would also include sales to walk-in customers.
When Shurr broached the subject, his boss asked him to give it a chance and said he was really needed on the showroom floor. Shurr, who describes himself as more of a computer guy, quit about a month later.
“I feel kind of trapped at the moment,” said Shurr, who has since taken a part-time job as a parts manager as he tries to find full-time work.
Long-distance relationships between bosses and staff might also be an issue. Nearly a third of workers at large firms don’t work in the same metro area as their managers, up from about 23% in February 2020, according to data from payroll provider ADP.
Distance has weakened ties among co-workers and heightened conflict, said Moshe Cohen, a mediator and negotiation coach who teaches conflict resolution at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. He has noticed more employees calling co-workers or bosses toxic or impossible, signs that trust is thin.
Cohen’s corporate clients said their employees are increasingly transactional with one another. Some are coaching workers in the finer points of dialogue, such as saying hello first before jumping into the substance of a conversation.
“The idea of slowing down, taking the time, being genuine, trying to actually establish some sort of connection with the other person—that’s really missing,” Cohen said.
One Los Angeles-based consultant in his 20s, who asked to remain anonymous because he is seeking another job, said that when he started his job at a large company last year, his largely remote colleagues were focused on their own work, unwilling to show a new hire the ropes or invite him for coffee. Many leave cameras off for video calls and few people show up at the office, making it hard to build relationships.
“There’s zero humanity,” he said, noting that he is seeking another job with a strong office culture.
The share of U.S. companies mandating office attendance five days a week has fallen this year—to 38% in October from 49% at the start of the year—according to Scoop Technologies, a software firm that developed an index to monitor workplace policies of nearly 4,500 companies.
Some companies have reversed flexible remote-work policies—in large part, they said, to boost employee engagement and productivity—only to face worker backlash.
Not all the data point downward. A Conference Board survey in November 2022 of U.S. adults showed workers were more satisfied with their jobs than they had been in years. Key contingents among the happiest employees: people who voluntarily switched roles during the pandemic and those working a mix of in-person and remote days. But that poll was taken before a spate of layoffs at high-profile companies and big declines in the number of knowledge-worker and professional jobs advertised.
At Farmers Group, workers posted thousands of mostly negative comments on the insurer’s internal social-media platform after its new CEO nixed the company’s previous policy allowing most workers to be remote.
Employees like Kandy Mimande said they felt betrayed. “We couldn’t get the ‘why,’” said the 43-year-old, who had sold her car and spent thousands of dollars to redo her home office under the remote-work policy. She shelled out $10,000 for a used car for the commute. A company spokesperson said that not all employees will support every business decision and that Farmers hasn’t seen a significant impact on staff retention.
During a brief leave, Mimande realised she no longer felt a sense of purpose from her product-management job. She resigned last month after she and her wife decided they could live on one salary.
She now helps promote a band and pet-sits. “It’s so much easier for me to report to myself,” she said.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’