The New Hongkongers
Confessions of a 'Hong Kong drifter'
Young educated people from China flock to Hong Kong to study, work, start a family and possibly launch a career or make a fortune in this freewheeling capitalist society. The fittest of these new immigrants, those who survive and stay, have become “new Hongkongers”.
Confessions of a 'Hong Kong drifter'By Amber Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 626 )
On a hot, sticky summer night in 2001, Geng Chunya had his first taste of life in Hong Kong. The Anhui native tried and failed to fall asleep on a single bed in a rented room that was hardly bigger than the bedstead in a tenement building in Sham Shui Po. Outside the window, bright neon lights turned night into day as pimps and homeless milled around down in the streets. At the time, Geng was only 22 and a third-year exchange student from Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University. He was to study for two months at the City University of Hong Kong.
As Geng passed beautiful mansions and villas on his way to the university campus in Kowloon Tong the next morning, he quickly realized that the 15-minute walk from Shan Shui Po to Kowloon Tong was like a commute to another world - heaven compared to his tenement hell.
“That two-month stay made me decide to start a business in Hong Kong,” Geng recalls. The glitz and gloom of Hong Kong’s unfettered capitalism fascinated him. He felt that all it took to pursue a free life in this city was working hard and making some sacrifices.
In 2002, Geng returned to Hong Kong via a professional talent recruitment program, enrolling in a master’s course in semiconductor material engineering at the City University. Upon graduation in 2004, he launched a startup in the Hong Kong Science Park. After obtaining Hong Kong citizenship in 2009, he got married, settled down and brought his parents over from China. He has now lived here for 15 years.
Geng, who now serves as director and general manager of a local Internet startup, is a typical “New Hongkonger”. People like him, who came to the territory from China after the 1997 handover in search of work and a place to live, are often called “Hong Kong drifters.”
Over the past century, the first four generations of Chinese immigrants to Hong Kong came to escape poverty, hunger or war. There was chaos after the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the Republican Revolution of 1911. The prolonged war with Japan and the Chinese civil war were followed by the communist takeover in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Others sought a better life after China began to open up its economy in the 1980s. Most of these earlier immigrants remained at the bottom or the lower rungs of Hong Kong society. However, the fifth generation of immigrants who have been arriving since 1997 generally has a very different background and fares much better.
In the past two decades since the handover, 260,000 immigrants from China have obtained Hong Kong citizenship, according to the Census and Statistics Department of the Hong Kong SAR. But aside from these New Hongkongers who have settled permanently, a huge number of students and working people keep going back and forth between Hong Kong and China.
According to recent reports by the Hong Kong media, at least 100,000 Chinese nationals were living, working or studying in Hong Kong in 2016. These include more than 50,000 people who came to Hong Kong on so-called “one-way permits” to join family there. More than 20,000 hold student visas, and about 9,000 are graduates who found jobs in Hong Kong after graduation. Another 10,000 came under special schemes to attract talent and professionals. About 25,000 arrived under an immigrant investor program.
Many Chinese who originally moved to Hong Kong to study, join family or under other immigration schemes apply for Hong Kong citizenship after they have fulfilled the legal requirement of having ordinarily resided in the territory for at least seven years. These are typically well-educated people from China’s growing middle-class, and they have now become the pillars of society in many fields.
New Hongkongers have risen to prominence in the media industry, the business world and other professions, including several Internet and high-tech billionaires. Tencent Inc. CEO Pony Ma (Ma Huateng), who founded his company in Shenzhen but lives in the Mid-levels, Frank Wang (Wang Tao), founder of leading unmanned aerial vehicle company DJI, and even Alibaba founder Jack Ma all became permanent residents after coming to Hong Kong under immigrant talent schemes.
As an immigrant who came to Hong Kong after the 1997 handover, Geng Chunya from Anhui Province is a typical New Hongkonger.
Speaking with enthusiasm, Geng reveals "My dream is to shoot a sequel to Comrades: Almost a Love Story.”
In the 1996 Hong Kong movie, the two main characters, Xiaojun and Qiao (played by Leon Lai and Maggie Cheung), who have both come to Hong Kong from China in search of a better life, struggle to make a living in the metropolis. Geng, who heads the Hong Kong Association of Mainland Graduates, believes that the story of the fifth generation of Chinese immigrants is a very different one. His confidence reflects China’s rising stature in the world.
Geng’s sequel would narrate the story of China’s upwardly mobile young urban professionals and entrepreneurs. They come to Hong Kong for an even better life and are ready to put up with sky-high living costs because they like the city’s free and open atmosphere and its promise of career or business success. Having grown up in China’s rough and tumble society, these ambitious and tough-minded fast climbers are bound to run afoul of local social norms.
The area where the interests of new and old Hongkongers clash most easily is higher education.
According to statistics by the territory's University Grants Committee, mainland students accounted for only 1 percent of the student body at Hong Kong's universities in 1998. This figure has since risen to 12 percent. Last year, more than 6,700 undergraduate students from China studied in Hong Kong.
First Encounters on Campuses
Hong Kong restricts access to its eight universities for Chinese undergraduate students to 1,500 per year or a maximum of 15 percent of the student body. But since no such restriction applies to graduate school courses, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Chinese enter graduate schools in Hong Kong every year.
The Chinese students are high achievers who passed their university entrance exams with top scores.
The University of Hong Kong has been ranked third in China for many years, behind Tsinghua University and Peking University. The Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology also rank among the top 10 Chinese universities. On the other hand, the Chinese students who can afford to study in Hong Kong given the high cost of living and few grants to cover tuition come from affluent Chinese middle-class backgrounds and often possess better social and cultural capital than their Hong Kong peers.
Kitty and Ann are two Chinese students who graduated from high school with high grades that would have easily gotten them into one of the prestigious Chinese universities such as Peking University or Fudan University in Shanghai. Their families, however, wanted them to study at the University of Hong Kong, and as a result, they have now gained a more international outlook.
Ebullient Kitty, who hails from Beijing, has worked at several media outlets in Hong Kong. She has been interested in social activism in Hong Kong and observed the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement of 2014 from the sidelines. She sympathizes with the younger generation’s demand for Hong Kong independence, which makes her a rare exception among the Hong Kong drifters. Originally, she was intrigued when China’s high-handedness galvanized Hong Kong society into action, but then she soon lost interest.
“I stayed in Hong Kong for work and because Hong Kong citizenship is useful. In contrast to my friends on the mainland, I can go abroad anytime, whenever I feel like it, which makes it much easier to chase celebrities,” remarks Kitty, who is a hip-hop fan. She speaks Cantonese quite well and gets along with her Hong Kong friends. But Kitty also feels that Hong Kong society is “too ignorant” about China.
Ann, a Fujian native, frankly admits that Chinese students do not really mingle with their Hong Kong peers on campus because of the language gap, different learning attitudes and because they use different social media. Ann, who now works in the PR department of an international company, observes that Hong Kong is very international; she meets many foreigners and Hong Kong locals at work. Yet this does not mean that everyone is one big family. “If you put oil and water together they will separate; if the ratio is not right you won't get them to blend with each other,” says Ann.
The World Wants Chinese Talent
Taiwan restricts the ratio of Chinese students to 2% and bans them from taking jobs after graduation. But in Hong Kong, about one third of Hong Kong drifter undergraduate students plan to stay for another three years after completing their four-year university degree to obtain permanent residency, according to a survey by the non-profit Hong Kong Ideas Center.
Hong Kong researcher Leung Kai Chi found in a study that, even if these students do not plan to settle in Hong Kong for good, with nearly 10,000 Chinese graduates entering the work force every year, local Hong Kong graduates feel threatened by the competition. Due to this oversupply in jobseekers, entry-level salaries have remained stagnant over the past two decades.
“The mainland Chinese who come to Hong Kong are all A-class picks. We are B-class or even C-class and must compete with them,” notes Mike, a 30-year-old finance industry employee who graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He recalls that in the past he would hear Mandarin being spoken perhaps once or twice a week in Central, and these were usually Chinese who were in Hong Kong on business trips to meet customers. Now he hears Mandarin being spoken five to six times a day, and these conversations are increasingly about daily life, such as going hiking or finding the right school for a child.
Given that the major clients of Hong Kong’s financial industry are Chinese-invested enterprises, the fact that the Central financial district is firmly in the hands of Chinese-backed banks and Chinese talent is not worth a headline.
“The trend is clear that in the future more Chinese will become partners,” notes Antony Dapiran, until recently a partner at the Hong Kong office of U.S. law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell.
“When law firms look for people now, Westerners don’t have a particular advantage. Those who can't negotiate in fluent Chinese won't be considered. I was lucky because I came here twenty years earlier.”
Skilled talent is much sought-after around the globe. Moreover, most Chinese undergraduates pay tuition fees that are three times higher than those paid by local students. Chinese graduate school students are an even more important pillar for the higher education market in Hong Kong. And given the declining birth rate in the territory, there is demand for high-caliber Chinese talent.
James Tien Bei-chun, chairman of the investment company Manhattan Holdings and honorary chairman of the Liberal Party, represents the stance of the territory’s business community. He notes that Hong Kong welcomes Chinese talent, saying that there is no need to be overly protectionist. Pointing out that, during the British colonial period, not that many British people came to work in Hong Kong, Tien concedes that the employment opportunities of local Hong Kong people would be negatively affected if too many well-educated Chinese competed with them for jobs.
“Before, when no Chinese came, the foreigners came. It’s all the same,” remark a finance industry PR official. But this professional, who considers herself a typical Hong Kong middle-class mother, points out that quantitative change creates qualitative change. After witnessing the performance of Chinese colleagues in the workplace, she is concerned about the future of her own child. “The Chinese are all outstanding; I feel the young Hong Kong people are not competitive. I sent my kid to an international school; I told him to go abroad after graduation to pursue a career, and don’t come back.”
Hong Kong Drifters and Beijing Drifters
Geng believes there is no need to distinguish between Hong Kong people and Chinese.“People from the mainland don’t consider the Hong Kong people their rivals, since Hong Kong competes with the entire world. Hong Kong’s positioning must change; it must embrace competition and seize the opportunities in China.”
Hong Kong people can, of course, go to China to explore and expand their opportunities, as “Beijing drifters.” This term is commonly used for those who flock to the Chinese capital from other parts of China in search of jobs. Chan King-cheung, CEO of the Hong Kong Association of Cultural Industries and a former chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal, observes that many high-caliber Hong Kong people who tried their luck in China returned after they were unable to acclimate to the local environment.
Hong Kong native Mike, who works in the financial industry, is ready to face the new realities of growing Chinese influence in the territory, but he is pessimistic about the future prospects of Hong Kong locals.
While China is a large country, the hurdles for Hong Kong people to become part of local society remain quite high in other cities.
Mike went to Beijing on an exchange program as a third-year student, spending the summer break in the Chinese capital. Subsequently, he kept in touch with Chinese participants from Peking University and Tsinghua University, which allowed him to gain a better understanding of China. When he started to work in the finance industry, he was willing to develop business with China, carving out a niche of his own. But he has observed that many Hong Kong people lack connections and interpersonal networks in China and are not interested in developing them.
Mike recently decided to take on a new challenge: He quit his job with an international bank and now handles the offshore business for a Chinese-invested financial institution.
“I can accept if someone who is more capable than me is my boss; I don’t mind if the boss is Chinese. I don’t believe that my performance is worse than theirs,” says Mike. Suddenly switching the topic, Mike reveals that he is not optimistic about the future of Hong Kong people. “China needs Hong Kong’s shell; it doesn’t need the Hong Kong people. It’s not that Hong Kong doesn’t have a future, it’s just that there won’t be any Hong Kong people in the Hong Kong of the future.”
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
Term commonly used for the People’s Republic of China Permit for Proceeding to Hong Kong and Macao. A permit issued by China’s Ministry of Public Security to Chinese citizens who want to move to Hong Kong or Macao to join family there. The daily quota is 150 people.