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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