Officials on Monday estimated that Hong Kong's population dropped by 23,600 or 0.3 percent, to 7,403,100 last year, partly due to a net outflow of 27,300 residents.
But the government dismissed the idea that the territory was witnessing a tide of emigration.
Provisional figures, compiled with the help of the latest population census, show there were 37,000 births and 51,200 deaths last year, while 17,900 one-way permit holders from the mainland moved to the SAR.
A government spokesman noted that 52,900 babies were born in Hong Kong in 2019, and said the much lower figure last year might be partly attributable to the Covid-19 outbreak.
The spokesman also said that travel restrictions and quarantine measures imposed by various countries to curb Covid-19 had severely disrupted cross-boundary travel and population inflow.
He said Hong Kong residents who left the SAR before the pandemic may have chosen to stay in other places temporarily or were unable to return to the territory.
"All these might have contributed to the net outflow of Hong Kong residents during the period," spokesperson said. "Thus, implying an emigration tide in Hong Kong solely from the increase in net outflow of residents is a sweeping generalisation."
Population expert Paul Yip from the University of Hong Kong said: “It seems that the situation has steadied a bit when comparing to 2020,” referring to earlier figures that showed that nearly 90,000 people left the territory between mid-2020 and mid-2021.
“Whether there’s a tide, I think we might have to wait until Covid is over. Because at this moment, there are some people who might like to come to Hong Kong, but can’t due to the quarantine measures. So I think the situation is still a bit fluid.”
The census also found that the proportion of never-married people increased in the past decade, notably among men aged 30 to 34, from 50% to 58%, and women aged 25 to 29, from 71% to 80%.
Yip said the marriage figures and the drop in births are concerning, especially because there has been an increase of seven percentage points in the past decade of people aged 65 and above, and they now account for 20 percent of the population.
“The rate of increase is quite drastic. If we do not have sufficient replacement of workforce, that would become a problem. If we have more and more elderly people, Hong Kong – with people living longer not healthier – the burden on medical and healthcare will increase.”