Belt and Road offers discontented Hong Kong youth a vista of opportunities

Victor Zheng says young Hongkongers frustrated by the lack of upward mobility here need to see the world to gain a wider perspective, and the new Silk Road is beckoning

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 November, 2016, 10:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 November, 2016, 5:47pm

Since the Occupy Central movement, emigration has ­become an important talking point in Hong Kong. Local media have even compared this phenomenon to the “brain drain” in the 1980s and 1990s, triggered by the so-called “confidence crisis”. We want to know if there really is a big wave of emigration from Hong Kong. If so, who are the people who want to leave? And, what implications can we draw from this phenomenon?

A city-wide phone survey was conducted from September 23 to 27 by the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The results showed that about two-fifths of respondents indicated they would like to leave Hong Kong if they had the chance. Since migration is not simply a fleeting thought but is costly, not only for migrants but their family members and society as a whole, such a substantial percentage raises concern.

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However, a follow-up question to those who wished to leave, to see if they had taken any action, had only one-tenth answering “yes”. This means those who have taken solid action to leave Hong Kong represent only 4.2 per cent of all respondents surveyed.

Faced with limited options, their discontent may accumulate, which may turn to persistent social unrest

A further analysis by age, education and level of trust in the local government indicated that younger people (aged 18 to 30) had a higher desire to emigrate than did older people (aged 51 and above). Those with college education or higher showed more desire to leave than people with a lower level of education. Respondents who distrust the government also indicated a higher desire to leave than those who trust it. Also, respondents who gave the chief executive a lower mark have a higher desire to leave Hong Kong.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a big brain drain due to a lack of confidence in the future of Hong Kong or strong dissatisfaction with socio-political development. Sociologists Lau Siu-kai and Wan Po-san quoted surveys conducted by professional associations at the time to illustrate that large proportions of professionals were keen to leave Hong Kong. They found 85 per cent of the local members of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, 80 per cent of the members of the Hong Kong Society of Accountants, and 60 per cent of the members of the Law Society expressed their intention to leave.

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More importantly, for these groups, their high desire to leave turned to solid action. According to demographer Ronald Skeldon, from 1980 to 1992, a total of 450,300 people had applied for an overseas visa (mainly for Canada, Australia and the United States), that is, they had taken action to leave. In other words, since these groups of people were equipped with economic, human and social capital, they chose to leave.

The younger generation who indicated greater desire to leave but could not do so may reflect a ‘double frustration’ phenomenon

The large-scale brain drain doubtlessly caused serious socio-political problems. But Hong Kong society at the time enjoyed upward social mobility, while socio-political discontent did not turn into a large-scale and prolonged social movement.

One important reason, I believe, was that migration from Hong Kong at that time served as a “safety valve” for those who were uncertain about the future or frustrated about socio-political development. Thus, social stress was released and the society could keep stable.

However, if looking at the present situation, we may find that those who are dissatisfied, particularly the well-educated and younger generation, indicate a greater desire to leave. But, only a small proportion of them have taken action. This implies it might not be easy for them to leave due to many constraints.

Compared to the earlier cohorts of well-educated emigrants, the current cohort may lack the resources and human capital. The conditions in their target destinations may be less welcoming, given shrinking economic opportunities in many Western nations. Also, our younger generation may not find it so easy to start a career outside Hong Kong.

If these dissatisfied people cannot find a way out, it is reasonable to deduce that the so-called safety valve mechanism may not function well, especially for the young. Hence, they may not be like their predecessors who had accumulated sufficient resources and could choose to leave when they felt frustrated or disappointed with the city’s socio-political development. Faced with limited options, their discontent may accumulate, which may turn to persistent social unrest.

The younger generation who indicated greater desire to leave but could not do so may reflect a “double frustration” phenomenon, that is, frustration with the current socio-political development and the frustration of not being able to opt out of Hong Kong.

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If this observation is correct, apart from the many frequently cited measures – such as government initiatives to help society out of the political quagmire and heal the wounds of division; to solve the housing problem so people have a decent living space; and, to ease young people’s social mobility path to give them better career prospects – we should offer more chances and incentives to young people to let them see the world and broaden their horizons.

In addition to well-developed Western countries, the emerging regions connected with Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative, where growth spurts are expected, should be destinations. By capitalising on these opportunities, our young people’s experience, skill and knowledge can be enhanced, so their chances for upward social mobility, both locally and globally, can be ensured.

Victor Zheng is assistant director of the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong