HONG KONG (Reuters) - Immigration consultants in Hong Kong have seen a dramatic surge in inquiries, especially from the young, after mass protests against an extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China from the Asian financial hub for trial.
Millions of people have taken to the streets in recent weeks in some of the Chinese-ruled city's largest and most violent demonstrations in decades, forcing Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to suspend the bill indefinitely.
The planned legislation sparked concern it will threaten the rule of law that underpins Hong Kong's international financial status at a time when many are already worried over the tightening grip of Communist Party rulers in Beijing over the former British colony.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula, which guarantees its freedoms, including freedom to protest and an independent judiciary, not enjoyed on the mainland.
Young people are more interested in Asian destinations such as Taiwan, Malaysia and Thailand, in contrast to previous trends that saw many target the likes of Canada and Australia, thanks to cheaper immigration costs and better job prospects closer to home, immigration consultants said.
Last weekend, around 1,000 people attended an immigration seminar on Southeast Asia organised by Golden Emperor Properties, a rise from around 100 at its previous seminars.
"It's the first time ever so many people have attended our seminar, and never before have we seen so many young people attending," Golden Emperor Properties managing director Terence Chan said, referring to interest from 30- and 40-year-olds.
General inquiries had increased since June 9 when hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets to try to thwart the extradition bill, and the number spiked after June 12 when Hong Kong police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators.
Centaline Immigration Consultant general manager David Hui said he had received more inquiries in the past two to three months as controversy over the bill intensified.
The number of inquiries from young people rose around 30%, he added.
Some Hong Kong tycoons have already started moving personal wealth offshore amid concerns over the legislation.
"Many people wouldn't consider Southeast Asia before...but one client told me jokingly he thought that region was not very politically stable, but now Hong Kong is even more unstable," Chan said.
He said Southeast Asia was ideal for young people who do not have a lot of money but are desperate to seek an "escape door".
Even though it is difficult to acquire permanent residency in some of these Asian countries, Chan said people were happy with a long-term visa.
"They don't mind because they don't want to be completely detached from Hong Kong," he said.
A senior executive in the financial services industry told Reuters companies were starting to look beyond Singapore to Thailand as a safe alternative to Hong Kong.
More Hong Kong people are also leaving for Taiwan, speeding up a trend in recent years, citing fears of Chinese erosion of the "one country, two systems" formula which Beijing hopes it can introduce one day on the island it claims as its own.
(Reporting by Clare Jim; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie)