Hong Kong unwelcome mat means city’s loss as mainland Chinese look elsewhere

Kristin Huang

Hong Kong’s mass street protests started in June as a rejection of the government’s plan to change a law on extradition of legal suspects and quickly morphed into general opposition to Beijing’s control of the city, before evolving further to renounce most things mainland Chinese.

Inevitably, the mainland Chinese that live, study and work in Hong Kong got the message that they are less than welcome. Many of them say they have been getting that message for many years.

What drove home the point in the latter half of 2019 was the violence between pro-Beijing groups and protesters, as well as the vandalism against companies, banks and retail outlets with business links to mainland China – or even those using advertisements containing mainland film or music stars. Shoppers from across the border have also faced abuse and harassment.

In the 23 years since Hong Kong returned to China’s control from Britain, hundreds of thousands of mainland Chinese have moved to the city because of family ties, mixed in with waves of those seeking better education, jobs and other opportunities. Many have assimilated, but can be identified by family name, accent or by speaking the Mandarin language commonly used in mainland China, while Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong.

Mainland drifters

A more recent wave of arrivals from the mainland are educated young professionals, referred to as gangpiao in Mandarin, which translates roughly as “drifters” to show they don’t have roots in Hong Kong.

There is no official data on the number of gangpiao, but a Hong Kong census in mid-2016 indicated about 77,000 China nationals fit the demographic – they had lived for several years in the city, around 80 per cent were aged between 18 and 30, and more than 60 per cent held postgraduate qualifications. In other words, just the sort of fresh talent Hong Kong needs to attract as its own population ages, but is now in danger of losing.

Hundreds of thousands of mainlanders have moved to Hong Kong since it returned to China’s control. Photo: Reuters

Many of the gangpiao – such as David Feng, a PhD student at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) – came to the city seeking opportunity; also drawn by shared culture and a social tolerance. Those attractions faded fast in the anger and tear gas that characterised Hong Kong in the second half of last year.

“My heart aches and I am really disappointed to see the city descend into a place that’s highly politicised and not suitable for study and research any more,” said Feng, who started his doctoral studies from September in computer science. Hong Kong was once a place where people got along regardless of place of origin, he said.

Feng explained that he completed a master’s degree at Loughborough University in Britain in 2017 and carried a Chinese national flag during his graduation ceremony and nobody cared. In November, at a graduation ceremony at HKUST, he said he tried to distribute some small Chinese flags to other mainland students, but was advised by a campus guard that it was dangerous. Feng said some local students threatened him.

“I never imagined that I would encounter this in China’s own territory,” said Feng, who added he doesn’t see much of a future in the city post-graduation, which isn’t good news for the economy.

A fresh graduate takes down anti-government posters at the HKUST campus in November. Photo: Felix Wong

When Hong Kong returned to China’s sovereignty in 1997, the city’s gross domestic product was the equivalent of 16 per cent of China’s, according to a report from the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank, issued in September. By 2017, the figure had fallen to 3 per cent, one marker of the astonishing economic expansion that saw China overtake Japan as the world’s second largest economy, after the US, in 2010.

Another marker is jobs. China’s government claims to have created about 13 million new jobs in urban areas each year on average over the last five years and kept unemployment largely under control at around 5 per cent, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics.

In the first 10 months of 2019, China created 11.93 million new urban jobs across the country, while the unemployment rate in urban areas dropped 0.1 percentage points to 5.1 per cent in October, mainly due to the improving employment for graduates.

‘Feeling unsafe’

For drifters feeling fearful on Hong Kong’s streets, expanded opportunities at home and abroad are creating a trend where some are giving up on the city, said Zhu Jie, a Hong Kong affairs expert at Wuhan University in central Hubei province.

Without enough communication and exchange, misunderstandings are bound to arise

Zhu Jie, Hong Kong affairs expert at Wuhan University

“The loss of those people is like a bridge broken between China’s mainland and Hong Kong,” Zhu said. “It has damaged relations as the anti-Chinese acts in the past months have severely eroded trust between the two sides,” he said. “Without enough communication and exchange, misunderstandings are bound to arise, which will fuel nationalist sentiments in both the mainland and Hong Kong and make it more difficult to solve problems.”

Hongkongers living in mainland China say safety and friendships are on the line

Other professionals from mainland China in Hong Kong don’t see going back home as the only option.

Zhang Ning, 35, lived in the city for eight years, working in the civil aviation industry, as did her husband. That was until November, when her husband took a job in Toulouse in southern France.

She said she lived in the Tung Chung area on Lantau Island near the Hong Kong airport, but relations with locals were turning increasingly frosty.

“I started to feel unsafe,” Zhang said. “Then the mass sit-in at the Hong Kong airport in September severely disrupted my work and life and made me determined to leave,” she said. It was a difficult decision, she said, as Hong Kong was once, in her mind, the most suitable and comfortable place for ethnic Chinese to have international experiences and develop sustainable careers.

“However, the relations between mainlanders and Hongkongers are now so hostile. It’s like a wound, even after it heals, it will leave a scar,” said Zhang, who added that the move to Toulouse meant she gave up her own job and now looks after her family.

Going back to the mainland isn’t the only option for those who choose to leave. Photo: Bloomberg

Postgraduate David Feng also left Hong Kong, but that was when his university suspended classes on November 11 after the Clear Water Bay campus was vandalised following the death of 22-year-old computer science undergraduate Chow Tsz-lok. Chow died after falling from the upper levels of a car park in Tseung Kwan O in circumstances that were investigated but never conclusively linked to protests.

The violence at HKUST coupled with already rising anti-Chinese sentiment on the campus led to scores of mainland Chinese students fleeing the city along with Feng. His plan now was to graduate and then look for work in his hometown in northern China or Beijing, where opportunities had significantly expanded, he said.

Zhang Jian, a Hong Kong affairs expert with the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said the clashes in the city and the backlash had left mainlanders feeling like the walls were closing in.

“It narrowed the space where mainlanders in the city can manoeuvre as they might be reluctant to do anything that might promote closer relations between the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong,” Zhang said.

City University professor James Sung Lap-kung agreed, saying it was a shock for mainlanders to realise the scale of the sweeping negative views towards China among the city’s younger generations.

However, people could get over shock and Hong Kong remained competitive in finance, trade and business – and that attracted talent from all over the world, including the mainland, Sung said. On that point he’s backed up by the “Global Competitiveness Report 2019” from the World Economic Forum. It ranked Hong Kong third after Singapore and the United States from among 141 economies surveyed.

Meet the mainland Chinese who are living in fear in Hong Kong

In education standards, Hong Kong also seems to be holding its own. According to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020 released in September, the University of Hong Kong came in at a seven-year-high of 35. Four other Hong Kong institutions remained in the top 200, though they did slip by between four and 16 places.

However, the survey closed in March 2019, or before universities in the city were hit by protests that effectively shut down many of them for months.

Broader horizons

Interviews with others in the gangpiao grouping about a future in Hong Kong point to a mixed outlook.

Eric He, 31, a mainlander and a salesman in a Chinese-owned securities company, has lived in Hong Kong for more than nine years and hopes to stay. “A lot of friends say drifters like me have to leave and return to the mainland as soon as possible due to the crisis here, but I still think Hong Kong is a place I love, a place that has good public order, future prospects and valuable wilderness to explore. I don’t want to waste the nine years I’ve spent here,” He said.

Jing Fang, a master’s student at Baptist University, said she hoped to find a job in Hong Kong next year to gain work experience outside the mainland. “My relatives back in the mainland are really concerned for my safety here, but I don’t think the situation in Hong Kong has become that unbearable,” Fang said. “And I respect Hongkongers’ insistence to make their voices heard.”

Hong Kong-based newspaper columnist Johnny Lau Yui-Siu said blaming the unrest for why some mainlanders were leaving missed the bigger picture.

“There are always people coming to Hong Kong and leaving Hong Kong, and these choices are made considering a series of factors including career opportunities, educational background and family needs,” Lau said. If mainlanders develop skills in Hong Kong that open up opportunities elsewhere then they may leave, he added.

Geng Chunya, president of the Hong Kong Association of Mainland Graduates and a permanent resident since 2001, said he had noted a shift in attitude among the city’s mainland residents in recent years and it fitted right into the gangpiao mould – footloose and with broader horizons.

More students now graduated from universities in Hong Kong and went straight back to the mainland because they had a much more mobile mindset when looking at opportunities, Geng said. The 2019 protests were more of a catalyst, he said.

In that respect, “Hong Kong’s relative decline in quality of life, cost of living and employment choices are the main factors for them leaving”, Geng said. “The unrest in the past year, in my eyes, is not the fundamental reason.”

Read the first part in the series, on the implications of the pro-democrats’ landslide win in the district council polls, here, the second part, on the city’s role as a gateway to mainland China, here, the third part, on the risks and rewards for foreign professionals in Hong Kong, here, and the fourth part, on the youths whose lives have taken a dramatic turn, here. The next part in the series looks at the road ahead for the city’s civil servants.

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