Hong Kong residency carrots are no substitute for nurturing home-grown skills

Bernard Chan says Hong Kong must continue to develop local education and training

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 May, 2015, 1:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

The government has just implemented a new immigration scheme aimed at the overseas-born offspring of Hong Kong permanent residents who have emigrated. Under this "second generation of Chinese Hong Kong permanent residents" initiative, eligible 18-40 year-olds will be able to come to Hong Kong for employment.

This follows several enhancements to other programmes aimed at attracting talent. The administration has eased some of the conditions of ordinary employment visas, the scheme to attract mainland talent and the quality migrant admission system - notably duration of stay and extension conditions. In addition, a start-up category has been added to the existing entrepreneur visa system. These are alongside our arrangements to let overseas students stay and work here after they graduate.

As well as these improvements, the government this year suspended the capital investment entrant scheme, which granted residency in return for HK$10 million of portfolio investment.

Studies show that immigration of skilled people has positive effects for the economy and general prosperity. Most developed countries in the world have a skills deficit and they are competing to attract talent. Some selectively seek specific skills and actively target individuals in, for example, particular engineering or medical occupations. Some give visas to high-achievers in arts and culture. Most are especially looking for entrepreneurs and innovators.

The competition is fierce. Canada's minister for employment has openly said that his country is trying to take advantage of US gridlock on immigration reform by introducing more proactive systems for attracting graduates and entrepreneurs.

Hong Kong's range of immigration categories might look messy or random, but they fit together. The various employment, business investor, mainland and quality migrant schemes have attracted some impressive people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Since the suspension of the capital investor programme, we no longer simply "sell" residency, as some critics were saying.

It is too soon to say how successful the new category for second-generation Hong Kong people overseas will be. There is obviously an irony in this: places like Canada attracted people from our city in the past, and now we are trying to get some of the younger generation back.

Some of the responses to the new scheme were sceptical. Why would a young person leave the spacious surroundings of Australia or Canada for a tiny and expensive flat in crowded and noisy Hong Kong?

Our quality of life and cost of accommodation are definitely hurdles to attracting talent - they are a major concern for existing residents, too. But the numbers of applications for admission to Hong Kong show that this city has some real "pull" factors. Some of these - low taxes, rule of law, safety, quality workforce and infrastructure - are well-known. One important but often overlooked factor is local acceptance of newcomers: overseas businesses do not face official discrimination or popular resentment here, unlike in some other Asian economies. But the key ingredient is opportunities, with proximity to mainland China probably at the top of the list. From sourcing and trading, to capturing the mainland's growing domestic market, there are prospects here that don't exist elsewhere.

Most of the migrant talent success stories receive little or no publicity. But they are out there - Americans, French, Koreans and others - bringing in new ideas and creating jobs.

Yet, despite all this, we cannot ultimately rely on attracting outsiders to meet all our needs for human capital. Realistically, the priority has to be nurturing home-grown skills and talent - it is also a matter of social fairness, and especially to help address the wealth gap.

It would be useful to know why we have local shortages in some skill areas, and whether we can remedy that. For example, demand for health care professionals is likely to rise as the population ages.

We can upgrade our immigration schemes but it is not a substitute for continuing to improve education and training for local people.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council