Life on the other side: Hong Kong students get taste of mainland living

Rise in number of those choosing universities up north due to factors such as low living costs, with experience also giving them a broader perspective on the mainland

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 September, 2016, 5:49pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 September, 2016, 11:53pm

Hong Kong student Yim Wa-sing’s first day of university on the mainland in 2005 was not what he had expected.

Yim, one of the first students from the city admitted to Southwest University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing city, had arrived to find that the campus was located in a remote village north of the city.

On top of that, the campus was also shrouded in dust and fumes, with key buildings still under construction, and surrounded by farmland covered in piles of bricks.

“I felt like [I was being] cheated. It was unimaginable,” Yim said.

Not only was he among the first Hong Kong students to be admitted to the Chongqing institution, he was among the first wave of students pursuing higher education on the mainland.

In 2006, only 518 Hong Kong students, accounting for just 0.6 per cent of high school graduates, applied to study at mainland universities. But those numbers have swelled over the past decade, rising from less than 1 per cent to nearly 6 per cent in 2015. Last year, 3,526 students applied for places in mainland universities, with nearly 50 per cent, or 1,689 students,gaining admission.

China’s booming economy, low living costs and the improved reputation of mainland universities are among the major reasons for the students to go north, with the experience also giving Hong Kong students exposure to the mainland.

“I could not speak a word of Mandarin back then; neither had I been to Chongqing before,” Yim, who now owns a Hong Kong-based legal consultancy advising on mainland commercial laws, said.

He spent months adapting to classes conducted in Mandarin and the use of simplified Chinese characters, as well as getting used to the socioeconomic realities of living in a mainland village compared with Hong Kong – not to mention the notoriously spicy Sichuan food.

“My classmates were all very curious about me, wondering why a Hongkonger would be willing to come to Chongqing, which was not as prosperous as Hong Kong at that time,” he said.

In 2005, Hong Kong’s yearly gross domestic product (GDP) was about US$250 billion, equal to 3.77 per cent of China’s GDP, which was almost US$6,600 billion. Ten years later, the city’s GDP accounted for only 2.8 per cent of the mainland’s as Hong Kong came in fourth place after Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou.

“The district in which our school is located has become the hub of Chongqing now, with its housing price rocketing from less than 1,000 yuan per square metre in 2005 to nearly 10,000 yuan (HK$11,600) now,” Yim said.

Kelsi Tsoi Bing-yi, a second-year international relations student at Peking University, said the low cost of living was an attraction.

“Unlike in Hong Kong, life here is really affordable. My monthly expenses are only 2,000 yuan or so, while the tuition and accommodation fees are no more than 8,000 yuan in total,” she said, adding that a meal at the school canteen will cost no more than 20 yuan, much cheaper than in Hong Kong.

Another appealing factor for students from lower income families is they have the option to apply for government sponsorships which can provide eligible students up to HK$15,000 each a year.

Hong Kong students also do not have to undergo the one-month military education and training in September.

Tsoi said she appreciated being exempted from compulsory core courses for all mainland students, which included Essentials of Mao Zedong’s Thoughts and Marxism-Leninism.

John Li Chun-hei, a classmate of Tsoi, was among the top five Hong Kong students admitted to Peking University in 2014 by their high school principal’s recommendation. He said the rising rankings of China’s top universities made them – and their students – more competitive.

The QS World University Rankings released this week saw Beijing’s Tsinghua University reach its highest ever position of 24th globally – ahead of Hong Kong University’s 27th spot.

Tsinghua was also ranked No. 3 in Asia while Peking University took ninth place in the region.

Lo Wing-cheung, principal of Heung To College of Professional Studies which has consulted on mainland university admission since 2002, said Peking University and Tsinghua University were considering boosting numbers of Hong Kong students in recent years, offering places to about 20 students in total last year.

“They are competing for talent with top universities in Hong Kong,” he said.

Some 15,000 Hong Kong students are currently enrolled in mainland universities and more than half of last year’s undergraduate freshmen went to top universities in Guangdong province.

When it came to courses, Chinese medicine major proved to be the most popular.

The popularity of the subject can be partly attributed to Hong Kong planning to establish its first Chinese medicine hospital.

Beyond campus life, students said the experience had broadened their views on the mainland.

“Not all of the mainlanders are like the parallel traders you run into in Hong Kong,” Li said.

“Many of them are very well-educated and polite. Unlike [how parallel traders get treated by the Hong Kong people], I never get discriminated on the mainland because of where I come from.”

But Li said it had also left him somewhat confused about his national identity.

“I felt left out most of the time,” he said. “I was treated like a foreigner sometimes, [such as] when I’m applying for scholarships that are open mostly to mainlanders only, and was treated like a mainlander sometimes, [such as] when I order drinks at bars and could not get special discounts that foreigners have.”

For Kylie Li, a third-year law student in Shanghai, she is now more neutral and introspective on the escalating political tensions between Hong Kong and the mainland after having experienced life on both sides.

“I was a participant in the Occupy movement in 2014,” she said. “Seeing unarmed people get pepper-sprayed for protesting for their rights, I felt like I needed to do something to support them.”

She went to the street and attended the mass rally at Harcourt Road. An hour later, after listening to a politician’s speech, she retreated from the event.

“I was there to support the students, but many of the movement leaders had twisted the protest into a political tool for their own [gains],” she said. “The young localists always said that they represent the new generation. However, as part of the new generation, I really disagree with their radical demands.

“Young people in Hong Kong who know little about real life in China could be easily manipulated by politicians who also lack knowledge of China. In that case, how can you solve the conflict? It is basically a deadlock.”

However, Yim has a more negative view seven years after graduation.

“The four years of studying in the mainland have turned me from pro-China to anti-China, as I got to know the dark side of the country,” he said.

The young lawyer cited the 709 crackdown on the mainland, where on July 9 last year the authorities rounded up hundreds of rights lawyers, aides and activists, with about 300 ending up in detention. Four were convicted of “inciting subversion of state power” earlier in August this year.

“As a lawyer in China, you cannot be anywhere close to sensitive political issues, like the violation of human rights. What’s worse is that the legal system is not fair and [does not offer enough protection] for lawyers to uphold the justice,” he said.

Despite this, he still thinks fondly of Chongqing.

“I still love Chongqing,” he said. “It is my second hometown.”

Hu Siu-wai, a specialist on cross-border education at the Education University of Hong Kong, said the simmering resentment and political tensions may hinder some people from going to the mainland to study and work.

“How students view the Hong Kong-mainland relationship will affect their decision over pursuing higher education on the mainland,” Hu said. “If they see only the conflict, like the Occupy movement and the rise of pro-independence radicals, and ignore the growing cooperation between the two parties, they would definitely hold back.”

Mainland admissions specialist Lo took a more positive view.

“At least students studying on the mainland will be able to see and experience how the real China is for themselves instead of being manipulated by biased comments,” he said.

While mainland universities have their attractive qualities and former students report positive experiences, statistics show that students tend to return to Hong Kong to work after graduation.

A Bauhinia Research Centre survey in 2015 found that two-thirds of young Hongkongers, aged 18 to 29, were unwilling to work across the border in China, citing doubts over the rule of law and quality of life.

According to the poll, 22.8 per cent of those unwilling to work up north lacked confidence in the rule of law, 18 per cent said they were not used to the way of life there, while 15 per cent held a negative perspective of mainland society and quality of life.

Meanwhile, experts said it remains to be seen whether the trend for Hongkongers to study on the mainland will continue.

While the tertiary institutions are gaining a better reputation, the overall economic situation may have an impact, according to Chou Kee-lee, department head of Asian and policy studies in the Education University of Hong Kong.

Students may prefer staying in Hong Kong as well if the local government offers more working and studying options for the young, given that the local university enrolment rate is as low as 18 per cent, he added.

“More students will go to the mainland if China performs well in its economic and social development in future … but the mainland is now experiencing an economic slowdown, the direction of which is still unpredictable.”