Mainlanders quit Hong Kong for greener pastures

Elaine Yau
22 March 2010

The growing presence of mainlanders in the shopping malls and university campuses of Hong Kong suggests they must find the city highly attractive. But the latest figures from the Immigration Department paint a different picture.

Since the quality migrant admission scheme was launched in 2006, more than 40 per cent of mainland participants have not applied to extend their stay after an initial year living here. After graduation in Hong Kong, mainland students also seem to leave in droves. More than half the mainland graduates in an employment scheme launched by the government in 2008 did not apply to extend their stay after a year here. Former mainland professionals who have worked in Hong Kong say the stressful work environment, limited career prospects and bad treatment by Hong Kong employers prompt them to head back home.

Immigration and human resources consultants attribute the exodus to a culture clash, a dismal economy amid the global downturn, local employers’ preference for local graduates and better prospects on the mainland.

Among those who have packed up and left is 28-year-old Qiu Chen. After graduating from Chinese University with a master’s degree in media studies in 2007, Qiu found work at Wen Wei Po and then Asia Weekly, where she stayed until January. But the vast and growing mainland media market saw her quit her HK$16,000-a-month editing job at Asia Weekly to become design director at a Hangzhou business magazine. “Several new magazines have recently launched in Hangzhou. At a time when the media industry is shrinking around the world, I think China is the only place where you can roll out new publications.”

The Hunan native said she loved Hong Kong’s vibrant and cosmopolitan lifestyle but better prospects on the mainland won out.

“The only thing I dislike about Hong Kong is the high living costs,” she said. “Other things like the legal system are much better than those on the mainland but the magazine market is just too small compared with the mainland’s.”

Local employers’ preference for local graduates also makes job-seeking difficult for mainlanders. Baptist University sociology professor Chan Kwok-bun, who surveyed 30 mainland professionals in Hong Kong two years ago, agreed the local job market did not favour mainland graduates.

Chan interviewed 10 mainland graduates in the 2008 employment scheme, which does not insist that applicants have a job in Hong Kong when they apply. But they must have a job after 12 months here when they apply for extensions of stay. Immigration Department figures show that less than half, or 1,369 of 2,758 participants in the scheme, applied for extensions of stay in 2009. Chan said many local companies were reluctant to employ mainland graduates for administrative reasons.

“Companies must provide a lot of documents to immigration officials to help with applications for extensions of stay. They also have to explain the reasons for employing a mainlander in a particular post instead of a local. Many bosses baulk at the extra administrative work and hassles,” he said.

Vivian Wang, a 25-year-old journalism graduate who now works in Guangzhou, is among the mainlanders who have been forced to leave the city because of unco-operative employers.

“The NGO I worked for after graduation didn’t want to bother with the immigration stuff, so I resigned,” he said. “I attended several interviews after that, but I couldn’t find a job before I was due to apply for an extension of stay.”

The ones who stay find it difficult to adapt to the Hong Kong way of life, Chan said. “Ninety per cent of the survey respondents said they did not want to stay in Hong Kong in the long term. They blamed the overtime work culture and indifferent local colleagues for their disenchantment. Knowing that their residency depends on continuity of work, bosses treat some mainland graduates poorly. They have to grin and bear it for the sake of residency.”

Despite the government’s stated aim of attracting highly skilled people from the mainland and abroad to settle in Hong Kong, the much-touted quality migrant admission scheme has managed to keep here slightly more than half the people that have applied to stay under the scheme in the past three years.

Immigration consultant Eddie Kwan King-hung, whose company helps people apply for the scheme, said it had been difficult for even highly skilled mainland professionals to secure a job during the economic downturn. “For those who set up their own businesses, the business environment has not been good over the past few years,” he said. “Their skills and talent also give them high mobility. With management positions and highly skilled jobs on the mainland paying more than those in Hong Kong now, many of them would rather go back.”

Edmond So Wai-chung, general manager of Besteam Personnel Consultancy, said some mainlanders had no intention of staying.

“Many mainland professionals treat a work stint in Hong Kong as a springboard to better future work on the mainland or overseas,” he said.

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