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Government targets second generation overseas Hongkongers to boost workforce

By Achlys Xi and Teenie Ho

Teresa Kuan was doing post-doctoral research in California before she received an offer to work as an anthropology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) in 2012. She jumped at the chance to return to the city she left at the age of five.

As an anthropologist studying China, Kuan says Hong Kong was an “obvious choice” because it is both close to the Mainland and an international cultural hub. “It’s such a fun, vibrant, dynamic city,” Kuan says. Although she was born in Hong Kong and holds a Hong Kong Identity Card (HKID), Kuan sees herself as culturally a Chinese American as she lived there for nearly 30 years.

Still, Kuan values the opportunities and lifestyle options found in Hong Kong. She is not alone, which is why so many foreigners have been drawn to living and working in the territory over the years. But in recent years, the city has faced tough competition from neighbouring cities and regions like Singapore, Shanghai and Taiwan in vying for foreign talents.

This comes as Hong Kong faces a rapidly ageing population. Figures from the Census and Statistics Department show the city’s workforce will start shrinking in 2018 and drop by 170,000 in 13 years. Projections show one in three Hongkongers will be aged 65 or over by 2041, meaning there will be fewer than two working people to take care of one elderly person.

This manpower shortage poses a challenge to the government to maintain the productivity of the city’s future workforce. In the latest policy address, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced the government would target the children of Hong Kong people who had emigrated overseas as a way to bolster the skilled workforce. These returnees, who have foreign nationality, would need to apply under policies typically aimed at other incoming foreigners, such as the General Employment Policy and Quality Migrant Admission Scheme, in order to come and work in Hong Kong.

The government says a pilot scheme will be launched to attract second generation overseas Hongkongers, who would be bachelor degree holders aged between 18 and 40, to return to Hong Kong. Under the scheme, a stay pattern of “1+2+2+3” years would apply, by which the government would grant applicants a one-year visa and extend their stay if they can secure employment. They could then obtain a permanent HKID after seven years in Hong Kong.IMG_0034

The government believes these people’s knowledge of foreign languages and cultures makes them “quality” workers who might be more willing to come to Hong Kong because of their family ties to the city.

The aim is to draw in professionals like 37-year-old Lokman Tsui, assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at CUHK. Born to and raised by parents from Hong Kong in Amsterdam, Holland, Tsui says family ties was one of the reasons he came here to work for internet giant Google after getting his PhD in the United States in 2010.

Here, Tsui reunited with family members and relatives after years of separation. He says he feels emotionally attached to Hong Kong as he grew up listening to Cantopop and watching Hong Kong movies and Cantonese-dubbed cartoons. Hong Kong holds a special appeal to him. “I like to be here, I want to be here. I can be anywhere else, but I wanna be here,” he says.

Career-wise, Tsui thinks his knowledge of multiple languages gives him a competitive edge here, “Hong Kong… has always been a bridge between the East and the West, and as long as it continues to do so, my skills will be useful here,” he says.

But not every returnee story progresses so smoothly. Ming (who does not want to disclose his identity) is also a second generation overseas Hongkonger. He came to Hong Kong to look for work in 2008 but left because he failed to find a permanent job here, while the employment prospects in Singapore were better. He is now working there as an investment adviser.

Ming says he chose Singapore partly because of his inability to speak fluent Mandarin. “Hong Kong’s business is more connected to the Mainland, while Singapore puts less emphasis on this language and is more willing to accept foreign workers,” he explains.

He is also concerned about the Mainland’s growing reach in Hong Kong and fears the Chinese government will further squeeze Hong Kong’s freedom of speech in the future, unsettling the economy, “We all know that Singapore is all controlled by the government, but China is trying to influence Hong Kong that, in the long term, it affects the way the economy has been operating,” he says.

Another reason Ming wants to stay in Singapore is that it has a better living environment than Hong Kong, especially when it comes to housing. The city-state has a home ownership ratio of over 90 per cent, with the majority of people living in either rental or self-owned subsidised flats. While many Hongkongers find even the tiniest apartments out of their reach financially, the per capita average living space in Singapore is around 270 sq. ft., more than double that of Hong Kong.

With foreigners making up 38 per cent of the total labour force, Singapore now has one of the world’s largest foreign workforces. Many of them are highly educated, with some 200,000 degree holders entering Singapore since 2007.

Paul Yip Siu-fai, professor of the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong, says Hong Kong also needs to import labour from overseas to improve the overall quality of the workforce, especially as many immigrants from the Mainland are not that competitive in the labour market. “We do need high-quality migrants coming here to offset the people who have left Hong Kong,” Yip says.

As for how many returnees the government can hope to attract, it is difficult to say. For starters, there are no figures on how many potential returnees there are. The Security Bureau estimates some 840,000 residents emigrated in the 1980s during the Sino-British negotiations over Hong Kong’s future. Of these, about 90 per cent moved to the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK.

Based on this, Yip suggests there could be some 50,000-60,000 second generation emigrants aged 18-40 who are eligible to apply. The scheme would be very successful if it could attract 20 per cent of these people to Hong Kong.

Professor Raymond So Wai-man, Dean of the School of Business in Hang Seng Management College, believes the government has neither targeted a specific type of talent nor singled out a direction in which the economy should develop. He says the government wants to attract as much talent as possible in the hope that “something will turn up”.

Still, So says Hong Kong does have advantages compared with Singapore, such as a free flow of information and higher economic freedom. He thinks Hong Kong is a better place to develop a personal career. With many niche markets as yet undeveloped, Hong Kong has much potential to advance and diversify its economy, “If you want to develop your career, you want to do a lot of crazy stuff, Hong Kong still has the cutting edge,” he says.

Yet, these potential opportunities have not deterred the thousands of local students who choose to study abroad every year. Last year, over 14,000 Hong Kong students went to study in Britain, the most popular destination for Hong Kong students looking to further their education overseas. Meanwhile, the number of students going to Australia exceeded 12,000, 22 per cent more than a year ago.

The government is keenly aware of this and hopes to retain this home-grown talent and ensure they will return once they graduate from overseas universities. For instance, the Hong Kong Scholarship for Excellence Scheme, which first appeared in the 2014 Policy Address, will subsidise outstanding local students to study in prestigious universities worldwide provided that they return to contribute to the local labour market for a period equivalent to their length of study abroad.

However, some outgoing students have changed their minds since living overseas. Nineteen-year-old Gordon So Hoi-tin is a sophomore at the University of Western Ontario in Canada who has always identified himself as a Hongkonger and had wished to return after graduation. Majoring in media, information and technoculture, So wants to become an academic in the future.

But after witnessing the Umbrella Movement from abroad, he feels Hong Kong has changed. “In recent events, you can find a lot of irrational things that make no sense… Policemen beat people up but it ended up with no consequences, even though there are video clips as evidence,” he says. He also worries that academic freedom in Hong Kong is now shrinking.

More importantly, after going to Canada, So realises he can also achieve his goals outside Hong Kong. He now wants to remain in Canada as he sees a more sophisticated academic culture there. “You have to admit that Hong Kong is still a very small city, and the field where Hong Kong’s strength lies is finance,” he says.

Another sophomore Jonathan Tong Chi-kin, a 19-year-old who studies architecture at the University of New South Wales in Australia, also sees fewer opportunities in Hong Kong as it lacks land that can be built on and there are many constraints on building design. Instead, he is considering starting his career in Japan, as he thinks the country is the most advanced in architecture in the world.

For David Ho, a senior personnel consultant, the government is big on talking but offers few real incentives to attract people to return. He says the government’s pilot scheme to attract second generation emigrants is an unheard-of strategy and he struggles to see how it can succeed without knowing what kind of resources will be invested into it.

Doris Ho Pui-ling, who heads the Policy and Project Co-ordination Unit in the Chief Secretary for Administration’s Private Office, defends the government’s record but says there is room for improvement. Ho, who also provides support to the Steering Committee on Population Policy, says the government is sometimes too concerned about public opinion which ultimately hinders development. For instance, the government can only think about ways to attract returnees under the existing policy framework, rather than coming up with fresh, bold plans. “Unlike Singapore, we lack a progressive mindset in our policy,” she says.

The policies in question will soon be put to the test, as the government will launch the pilot scheme aimed at second generation emigrants in the second quarter of the year. Meanwhile, the Education Bureau has received 655 applications for the Hong Kong Scholarship for Excellence Scheme. Yet, regardless of how hard the government formulates policies to encourage people to come back, whether Hongkongers living overseas decide to do so will rest on how they view a whole range of factors, from air quality and housing to education and the availability of suitable jobs.

Edited by Brian Wong