Greater Bay Area’s tech talent search should be casting its net closer to home, with Hong Kong as its base
Ken Chu says Hong Kong could be a beacon for the region’s global tech talent search, but should not be indirectly excluding mainland graduates from its schemes
The ZTE saga has taught China a hard lesson that the country must be self-reliant in technological development and innovation. ZTE is a formidable Chinese telecoms equipment maker, the fourth largest in the world, but when the United States slapped a complete ban on exports of American chips, ZTE’s operations were abruptly halted. Being able to control and develop one’s own cutting-edge technology is the lifeline of every technology company, and it ultimately depends on talent.
The world is engaged in a raging competition for talent. Every government is acutely aware that people are the core of their competitive edge, people with deep scientific and technological knowledge, creative and innovative minds and strong digital skills. Hong Kong recently kicked off the Technology Talent Admission Scheme to fast-track immigration of foreign talent in a bid to boost the innovation and technology sector, with an annual quota of 1,000 over the next three years.
However, the scheme is casting its net too far and wide. By being applicable only to degree holders from universities of the top 100 universities in the STEM-related ranking tables of QS, Times Higher Education and Academic Ranking of World Universities, it seemingly fences out many talented people from China’s tertiary institutions. China is now home to some of the world’s top tech companies, with Tencent and Alibaba among the top 20 by market capitalisation, and has outpaced the world in many areas of innovation.
The country is on the verge of becoming the world’s technological leader and Hong Kong will only lose out if it does not ride this wave and attract more tech talent within the nation. I would therefore suggest expanding the scope to include the mainland’s 42 “Double First Class” universities in this scheme.
A sound talent management scheme will also benefit the successful development of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area, and goes beyond tapping into the global talent pool. The plan, a key part of China’s national development strategies, must also strive to help talent converge and interact within the entire bay area. For example, finding ways to narrow the gap in salaries tax obligations for tech talent between Greater Bay Area cities would be one way forward.
The fact that President Xi Jinping recently replied directly to the request by leading scientists from Hong Kong to allow research institutions and universities to apply for mainland R&D funds shows that China highly values talent in the Greater Bay Area, which Beijing hopes will grow into a world-class cluster of cities on a par with the world’s three leading bay area economies.
Realistically, the Greater Bay Area still lags far behind Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area in terms of nurturing and attracting global talent. Take a look at the employment and workforce composition in Silicon Valley: of the 1.64 million jobs created there, 26 per cent are tech-related, including scientists and engineers working at the forefront of innovation and technology. Meanwhile, Asians account for one-third of the workers employed in Silicon Valley, with Indians and Chinese dominating the Asian workforce.
Now let’s look at the situation in the Greater Bay Area. In Hong Kong, tech-related workers accounted for around 2.2 per cent of the total working population, according to the latest Census and Statistics Department figures. In addition, out of the roughly 83,000 university students in the city, a small percentage are computer- and IT-related majors, hotly sought after by innovation and technology enterprises.
Across the border, Shenzhen does not fare much better, either. In 2017, Shenzhen attracted over 18,000 Chinese students returning from overseas studies but only about 2,500 work in the IT and technology sectors. In other words, the Greater Bay Area still has a long way to go in attaining the same saturation levels of tech talent as in Silicon Valley.
In recent years, Silicon Valley has witnessed an exodus of talent to Texas’ Silicon Hills, due to escalating living costs and soaring home prices. This offers an opportunity for the Greater Bay Area to attract these Valley talents, especially non-American tech workers.
In light of this, Greater Bay Area cities must collaborate in attracting talent from around the world and in providing an environment and support network that can satisfy their needs at work and in daily life. Foreign tech workers could choose to live in Hong Kong – and their children could receive an international education here – and commute to Shenzhen, or vice versa, through some kind of flexible arrangements between the cities under the scheme. As an international city, Hong Kong can certainly play a prominent role in China’s global hunt for talent.
Hong Kong, as China’s gateway to the world, has traditionally been the financial hub of the Pearl River Delta region and it could look to expand this role by becoming a magnet for global talent. This would not only enable Hong Kong to enhance its own competitiveness but also entrench the role of the city in the bigger national strategy to acquire talent, allowing us to shine on both the domestic and international stages.
Ken Chu is the group chairman and chief executive of Mission Hills Group and a national committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference