HONG KONG – Air pollution in Hong Kong is so bad that one-in-five residents in a recent poll said they were considering leaving the city. That has some here calling that exodus the biggest brain drain threat since the British handed the city back to China in 1997 when 450,000 people are estimated to have left.

The poll, conducted by the Hong Kong Transition Project at Baptist University on behalf of the Civic Exchange non-governmental organization, showed public concern about air pollution rose dramatically from 2001 to 2008. It also showed that people believe air pollution is making Hong Kong an “undesirable location for both locals and prospective international talent.”

“People from all sectors of society know that air pollution is making them sick,” said Prof. Michael DeGolyer, director of the transition project. “However, almost no one is expressing their concerns to government leaders or the media. This silence indicates a serious breakdown in communication and trust and a need to review the public consultation system.”

The survey was taken during September and October 2008 and polled 1,020 Hong Kong adults in Cantonese, Mandarin, English, and the Chinese dialects of Hakka and Fujianese.

“If there are people who still think poor air quality is mainly a concern of the expatriate community, they need to look at the evidence,” said Christine Loh, chief executive of the Civic Exchange. “The survey shows local people are extremely concerned about the bad air they have to breath every day. It is also no comfort to them to know that our air is better than that in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.”

For its part, the government of Hong Kong says it is working to improve air quality. In his 2008 policy address, similar to a U.S. president’s State of the Union speech, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Donald Tsang, said the government was reviewing its air quality objectives and would adopt targets in line with those proposed by the World Health Organization.

Those targets however, fall within the so-called “entry level, interim target 1” objectives, which Loh says will not offer any meaningful improvement.

“The government is concerned tighter standards would lead to Hong Kong failing them by an even larger margin” than the standards currently employed, Loh said. “This mindset sees the air quality objectives as administrative hurdles rather than health-based standards,” he added.

“The government’s view on this needs to be brought in line with international thinking.”

 

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