24 October 2016
Among Hong Kong educational institutions, mainlanders only recognize a few "brands", one of which is the Chinese University. Photo: HKEJ
Among Hong Kong educational institutions, mainlanders only recognize a few "brands", one of which is the Chinese University. Photo: HKEJ

Why Hong Kong has lost its appeal for mainland graduates

“I had high hopes when I went to study journalism in Hong Kong,” said Paul Chi, from Beijing. “I planned to do my master’s and stay on for work. But the course was disappointing, similar to what I had learned before, and it was hard to find work with a decent wage. So I chose to work on the mainland.”

Now he is working for a consultancy that investigates Chinese firms looking to list on US stock markets. He writes reports on their products and creditworthiness for his company that sells them at a high price to potential investors, mostly in the United States.

Chi is not alone. An increasing number of mainland students are deciding to leave Hong Kong after graduation, despite the fact that this year the government extended from one year to two years the period they can work here without a visa.

Less than 20 per cent are staying on to complete the seven years they need to acquire a Hong Kong identity card.

In 2014, 16,000 mainland students came to study in Hong Kong’s tertiary institutions. They spent HK$2 billion in fees and at least the same amount in living costs. 

Hong Kong University announced this week that 9,400 mainlanders from 31 provinces, cities and regions had applied for the 2015/2016 academic year; out of them, it selected 309.

Several factors explain this loss of appeal. One is the high cost of rents and daily living. New graduates pay HK$3,000 to HK$4,000 a month to share a small apartment with three or four friends.

High living costs mean that most cannot save money. One apartment building in Fanling is offering units of 399 square feet with two bedrooms and two living rooms at HK$15,800 a month. Mainland students have converted the two living rooms into bedrooms and added air-conditioning and lights.

Another is the difficulty of finding a good job with a high salary. Competition in Hong Kong is intense, against local graduates, returnees, overseas Chinese and foreigners. Starting wages are low and working hours long.

Their best chance is in companies that sell products and services to the mainland market – such as e-commerce, insurance and financial firms – and media enterprises  that want coverage of mainland firms and people.

The ones who do best are those who bring with them their guanxi (關係) – children of people high in the government and Communist Party. Firms hire them with the expectation that such connections can translate into new business and contracts.

But most students do not have such guanxi. Also most don’t speak fluent Cantonese needed for jobs that involve daily contact with Hong Kong consumers.

Mainlanders here have their own website www:, with simplified characters, set up on May 1, 2011. It offers information on jobs, holidays, items to purchase, meeting places, holidays and even match-making. It is also an indication of the difficulty of breaking into mainstream Hong Kong society

A third reason is the rapid growth of the mainland economy, which offers a range of opportunities not available in Hong Kong, especially in the city where the graduate comes from and has his own and his family’s network.

A fourth is the rise in status of the People’s Republic of China passport. Ten years ago, Chinese wanted a second passport because their own gave them so little access to other countries; obtaining a visa for a developed country was a long and complicated process. A Hong Kong passport, on the other hand, gave visa-free access to most countries in the world; it was worth waiting seven years and putting up with poor living and working conditions to obtain.

But that has changed now. It is increasingly easy for a PRC passport holder, especially those from major cities, to obtain tourism, student and business visas for the countries they wish to visit.

The wealth of millions of Chinese parents means that they and their children can choose among universities all over the world. The relative cheapness and proximity of Hong Kong is no longer so attractive.

Chinese want brands in everything, including universities. Of the institutions here, only Hong Kong University and Chinese University are the “brands” recognized at home. Spend more and get a bigger brand name in North America, Europe or Australia.

The teenagers of today have grown up with American, Korean and Japanese television series, fashion and music. They are more worldly and sophisticated than the same group 10 years before. Many have traveled abroad in their teens, on school exchanges or on tours with their parents. Hong Kong is not so exotic or desirable.

Finally, the social and political struggles last year have created an atmosphere of conflict in Hong Kong. A well-educated mainlander studying at the University of Hong Kong or the Chinese University has little in common with a loud-mouthed housewife from Wuhan on a tour group. But for some Hong Kong people, he is still a “strong country person” (强國人), a representative of a brutal and illegitimate government.

Who wants to risk verbal and possibly physical abuse from these people?

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Hong Kong-based journalist and author. He had worked as a correspondent for the South China Morning Post in Beijing and Shanghai.

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