When Kivi’s plans to get a US masters degree did not work out last year, the student from China’s eastern city of Nanjing switched to an institution closer to home: the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Kivi is part of what university officials and immigration specialists say is a growing trend of mainland Chinese students and young workers moving to the former British colony.
Academics and students said the trend was driven by pessimism about the prospects offered by a mainland in the grip of tough zero-Covid policies and by doubts about the welcome Chinese can expect in the US amid increasing diplomatic tensions between Beijing and Washington.
“Mainland China is in a state of chaos now. Everyone is suffocated,” said Kivi, 23, who blamed Beijing’s crackdown on private enterprise for worsening young people’s job prospects and who asked to be identified by a nickname. “The zero-Covid policy is the last straw,” he said.
Rising discontent at the zero-Covid approach has been demonstrated across the country in recent days by an extraordinary spate of protests against the policy, some of them joined or led by students.
The increase in mainland Chinese students in Hong Kong has more than made up for a fall in the number of international students in the city during the coronavirus pandemic, official data shows.
The city’s immigration department issued 37,087 student visas to mainland students in 2021, up from 30,707 in 2019. In contrast, 6,645 students from overseas and Taiwan were granted study visas last year, down from 11,188 two years before.
Joshua Mok, vice-president of Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, said mainland Chinese accounted for most of the 13,000 non-local applications the institute had received by June for this year’s taught postgraduate programmes, far more than the 5,000 applications made in 2021.
Hong Kong’s better job prospects for young people would help drive a further increase in applications from the mainland over the next year, Mok said, adding that the university had already hired dozens more academic staff in preparation.
Mainland China’s youth unemployment rate was nearly 18 per cent in September, compared with less than 8 per cent in Hong Kong.
Academics and students said the targeting of mainlanders by demonstrators during Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests in 2019 had previously put some off the city, but the introduction of a sweeping national security law in 2020 meant this was no longer a big concern.
Mok said diplomatic tensions were also pushing mainland students toward Hong Kong, with some now being denied study visas by the US.
The US granted only 49,959 F1 student visas to Chinese mainland students in the six months to the end of September, down 45 per cent compared with the same period in 2019.
More young mainland workers are also looking to Hong Kong, according to immigration specialists, even though the city’s economy contracted by 4.5 per cent in the third quarter. Mainland China’s gross domestic product grew 3.9 per cent during the same period.
“The main driver is the political and economic uncertainty caused by zero-Covid . . . Many indicators showed that mainland China is moving backwards,” said JY, a Shanghai-based medical tech firm manager in her mid-30s.
JY, who asked to be identified only by her initials because of sensitivities about emigration in China, said she and a “bunch of friends” had become interested in moving to Hong Kong after the city’s leader, John Lee, unveiled new visa schemes in October.
The schemes include a two-year “top talent” pass allowing those with an annual salary of at least HK$2.5mn (US$320,000) or who graduated from a top university to stay in Hong Kong without first obtaining a job offer.
Immigration consultancies that help mainland Chinese move to Hong Kong have reported a rise of interest following announcement of the new schemes. Inquiries from the mainland rose 20-30 per cent, according to a staff member at the Hong Kong office of agency Globevisa.
The number of mainland Chinese workers granted visas in Hong Kong declined to 9,065 in 2021, down 35 per cent compared with 2019. But visas for overseas workers fell an even more precipitous 67 per cent to 13,821.
The number of long-term work visas granted to mainland Chinese also grew 15 per cent between 2019 and 2021 to 6,930, compared with a fall for overseas workers of a third.
Attracting talent from mainland China is particularly important for Hong Kong after many residents fled the city’s tough coronavirus restrictions and the political crackdown that followed the 2019 protests. Hong Kong’s workforce has fallen by at least 140,000 people since 2020 to around 3.7mn people.
Zhang, a 30-year-old Nanjing-based consultant with degrees from the US, said he was considering using one of Hong Kong’s new talent schemes as a route out of mainland China. The city could “be a stepping stone for me to emigrate to another country”, said Zhang, who asked to be identified only by his surname.
Yoyo, 22, a student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is one of many peers from the mainland who yearn to stay in the city after graduation.
Mainland China offered only “dim prospects” because of poor working conditions, a lack of professional ethics and a dearth of women in leadership positions, said Yoyo, who asked to be identified by her nickname.
“In Hong Kong, at least, I can live like a human being,” she said.