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New Migration Pattern Develops in Hong Kong: Many Workers Look North - 2002-07-01

Five years ago, many Hong Kong people were uncertain about life under communist China. But today, as Hong Kong's economy languishes in recession, many hope a better future lies north of the border.

Christine Kwok, a 21-year-old university graduate is packing her bags for a job in China. Five years ago, she said, she would not have considered the idea. Her family left the Chinese province of Fujian when she was small and lived comfortably in Hong Kong during the boom times in the 1980s and mid-1990s.

But times are harder now in Hong Kong. The jobless rate is at a record 7.4 percent and the government says it could get worse as fresh graduates flood the market.

Veteran workers and newcomers like Ms. Kwok flock to mainland job interviews in the hope of finding a career in China's fast-growing economy. There are no statistics on how many Hong Kong residents work across the border, but employment agencies say it is clear many people are at least considering doing so. "Maybe it's a place where we can start a career. In terms of (employment) potential maybe there would be better potential in China because there are a number of large cities," said Ms. Kwok. "Since so many multinational corporations [are] investing and developing in China, maybe there are a lot more opportunities compared relatively to Hong Kong."

That sentiment was almost unimaginable 10 or 15 years ago, as Hong Kong's economy boomed. China then was an economic backwater, with a centrally planned economy. But China has shifted to a market economy, and hundreds of foreign companies have moved in, creating jobs, transferring technology and developing skills.

Many of these companies need well-educated workers and managers, and those are the jobs Hong Kong residents hope to land across the border.

Experts say this move north is less worrisome than the emigration Hong Kong saw in the 1990's. Before Hong Kong's handover to Chinese control in 1997, thousands of professionals and their families, fearful of life under Beijing, left the then British colony for Canada, Britain, Australia and other countries. Many never returned.

Professor George Lin of Hong Kong University studies the city's migration patterns. He said the flow north differs from the earlier exodus. He said Hong Kong people move to China to chase temporary opportunities. They do not plan to stay permanently. "This is what we call mobility, population mobility," he said. "These people have no intention of permanent residencies in mainland China, they simply work there and they still hold their Hong Kong identification card. I think they are there to tap the potential that they have seen."

Economics professor Raymond Chan of City University of Hong Kong said the city could even benefit when workers come home. "Of course, we are losing better-trained manpower to those companies not based in Hong Kong. But from a different perspective, mainland companies are providing training opportunities for our fresh graduates," he said.

Some economists also suggest the numbers moving to China might not be so great. They said the mainland job market mostly attracts workers with low skills, such as new graduates unable to land jobs in Hong Kong.

Pu Yonghao, senior economist at investment bank Nomura International in Hong Kong, said the labor movement is part of the city's transition as it copes with mainland competition. He said that to keep workers at home, the territory must revive its competitiveness. "Hong Kong needs to reposition to find the strength to withdraw from areas where we don't have competitive advantage and that's just the way to go," he said.

In the meantime, Ms. Kwok thinks she is making the right decision in moving to China. However, she wants to come back to Hong Kong as soon as the economy gets better. "I regard it as my home and I will come back," she said. "If there is opportunity or if someone hires me here I would love to work in Hong Kong."

But Hong Kong officials warn it may take a few years before the economy bounces back enough to cut the unemployment rate.

This is part of a series of reports on Hong Kong as it marks five years under Chinese control