Hong Kong visa bid to lure talent from world’s top 100

Hong Kong this week unveiled a raft of measures to attract foreign talent, including graduates from the world’s top 100 universities, and extra funding to increase numbers of postgraduate researchers, as part of measures to reverse a significant brain drain from the city.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee, who took office in July, said in his first policy speech on 19 October that about 140,000 people had left the city’s local workforce over the past two years. According to the city’s government, more than 60% were highly skilled, including those who had worked in management positions or had professional qualifications.

“Apart from actively nurturing and retaining local talents, the government will proactively trawl the world for talents,” Lee said during Wednesday’s announcement of the introduction of a two-year ‘top talent pass’ for those who graduated from the world’s top 100 universities and have three years of work experience, alongside individuals with annual salaries of around US$320,000. Both schemes will have no upper limit on numbers.

Lee said the Hong Kong government’s 17 offices overseas will set up dedicated teams to liaise with the world’s top universities and encourage graduates to come to the city.

Under the just-announced scheme, graduates of top 100 universities would also be exempt from strict rules that require employers to seek locals to fill jobs before seeking talent abroad and would be allowed to come to Hong Kong for a period of two years to seek work “without conditions”.

Overseas and mainland students graduating from Hong Kong universities will be allowed to remain in the city for two years – up from one year previously – to seek work.

Greater Bay Area

The permit will also be expanded to cover those graduating from Hong Kong university campuses located in the Greater Bay Area – a cluster of nine cities in the neighbouring Guangdong province in China which are linking up with Hong Kong and Macau.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) have branch campuses in the Greater Bay Area and the City University of Hong Kong is about to establish one.

This development is particularly valuable for mainland Chinese students who could previously only come to Hong Kong with a prior job offer.

Lee also announced that the Hong Kong government will increase the number of funded postgraduate research places at Hong Kong’s publicly funded universities from some 5,600 places at present to around 7,200 by the 2024-25 academic year.

Postgraduate research numbers from overseas and mainland China are not restricted to 20% of public universities’ student bodies, as is the case for undergraduate programmes and taught postgraduate programmes in Hong Kong. An expansion in the number of places will enable universities to enrol a larger number of research students from overseas and the mainland, the universities said.

Xi Jinping policies

The high-salary scheme is aimed at attracting professionals in financial services, many of whom have left for Singapore and other countries.

The ‘top talent pass’ is intended to attract science graduates and those with experience in research and digital and creative industries as part of Hong Kong’s plan to become a science and innovation hub and to serve Beijing’s goals to be a top technology power, as outlined by Chinese leader Xi Jinping during a visit to the city in July.

“This has to be [seen] in the context of Xi Jinping having raised talent as one of the key sectors for China’s future,” noted David Zweig, emeritus professor at HKUST and an expert on China’s academic and research talent flows. “He [John Lee] would have been forewarned [by Beijing] that talent would be an issue.”

However, it is also a reaction to the exodus of highly educated people from Hong Kong, adds Zweig. “It tells you that the Hong Kong government is concerned, it recognises that it’s a problem, and is trying to do something about it,” he told University World News.

The city’s population has declined by 1.6% compared to a year ago, according to government statistics released in August. Official data also shows that overseas student enrolment in all degrees across Hong Kong’s universities fell after 2019-20, although stronger demand from mainland Chinese students has made up for part of that loss.

Top 100 universities scheme

The top 100 universities scheme echoes measures announced in June by the city of Shanghai to allow graduates from the top 50 universities in international university rankings to have coveted residency status, something that is normally difficult for outsiders to obtain, in order to look for a job, and reduced restrictions to qualify for residency for graduates from the top 51-100 universities.

It is also similar to much-criticised policies unveiled by the United Kingdom to give immigration visas to graduates of the world’s top 50 universities, using mainly commercially-run international rankings lists.

Hong Kong has gone beyond both schemes by extending its offer to graduates of top 100 universities without stipulating – as Shanghai and the UK have done – which rankings these would be based on.

Five of Hong Kong’s own universities were in the top 100 of the latest Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings unveiled this month, while seven mainland Chinese institutions made the top 100, which is dominated by institutions in the United States and Europe.

“I’ve already seen criticism suggesting that they should widen it to the top 200 because Hong Kong is going to have trouble attracting people if everybody’s going after [graduates of] the same top universities. Shanghai is offering big schemes that the UK is also offering, so why narrow it to the top 100? A lot of the good universities are not in the top 100,” Zweig said.

Singapore and Taiwan also are stepping up measures to attract overseas talent, in part to counter demographic decline. Taiwan, in particular, needs foreign workers for its dominant technology industries and has focused on attracting talent from Asia. Singapore is also attempting to attract leaders in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), as well as finance and creative industries, with the introduction of the five-year Overseas Networks and Expertise pass announced in August.

South Korea in recent weeks also inaugurated an internship visa for young graduates so that overseas university students can also intern in the domestic high-tech field. Recruitment of foreign students residing in Korea to domestic companies will also be expanded.

Criticisms of rankings approach

Some Hong Kong lawmakers have suggested that rather than relying on foreign rankings in drawing up a list of preferred institutions, Hong Kong could offer preferential treatment to research institutions in mainland China, as well as those in Southeast Asian countries with a “cordial relationship with China”.

Legislator Nixie Lam of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong argued that the Hong Kong scheme should be more specific about the kinds of graduates needed, rather than focusing on rankings. Other members of the alliance pointed to graduates from Southeast Asian countries which have a cultural affinity with Hong Kong. Only a few universities in these countries make the top 100 rankings.

Other critics in Hong Kong have said the government’s focus should be on preventing people from departing by easing strict COVID-19 quarantine measures. Chambers of commerce in Hong Kong also pointed to the National Security Law imposed on Hong Kong since July 2020 as a factor driving the talent exodus from the city.

Hugo Horta, associate professor in the faculty of education at the University of Hong Kong, told University World News: “My colleagues say people in the past were interested in coming to Hong Kong but are not interested anymore, partly because of the political situation. They are afraid that a lot of the autonomy, freedom, etc, is lost and this is a problem for recruiting talent from all over the world.

“The pool of recruitment is getting smaller. And this might have consequences in terms of the diversity … the international diversity that we have here at Hong Kong universities,” he said.

Targeting Chinese talent

However, Zweig believes the announcement is mainly directed at mainland Chinese who have graduated from top universities abroad and want to return to Asia.

“Who are the talent that they are trying to bring in? Mainlanders will be more comfortable in a post-National Security Law Hong Kong. So this could be targeted at mainland masters students overseas: rather than going back to China, get them to come to Hong Kong,” said Zweig.

He pointed to a study published last month by the Asian American Scholar Forum based on works by academics at Harvard, Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The study found at least 1,400 US-based ethnic Chinese scientists switched their affiliation from American to Chinese universities in 2021, a 22% jump over 2020. Zweig noted that these were the kinds of people likely to come to Hong Kong under the new schemes.

Affected by the US Justice Department initiative that has targeted Chinese and Chinese-American academics involved in research collaborations with China, China’s prohibition of foreign travel for the past few years due to COVID-19 and generally soured US-China relations, Zweig said he did not believe that anybody anticipates that Sino-American research collaboration is “going to rebound significantly”.

“Even though Xi Jinping has said ‘we’re open to the world’, if China starts to deglobalise, people will talk with their feet,” Zweig said, noting that many young Chinese researchers and others would be attracted to Hong Kong’s open research environment where collaboration with US scientists would be less stigmatised compared with China.

Universities react

The announcements were welcomed by Hong Kong’s eight publicly funded universities.

In a joint statement on Wednesday 19 October, they said they would continue to “actively collaborate” with universities around the world and “help in promoting Hong Kong to become an international innovation and technology hub, an international education hub, and an East-meets-West centre for international cultural exchange”.

A separate University of Hong Kong statement said: “Hong Kong universities are known for our solid work in basic scientific research and well-established scientific research practices. We have an international academic environment, while backed by a strong mainland market which provides opportunities for knowledge exchange and commercialisation of the outputs of our researchers.

“With the support of the new initiatives, Hong Kong will surely attract top-notch scientists from home and abroad, and this could help in building Hong Kong into an international innovation and technology hub.”

Nancy Ip, who took over as the first woman president of HKUST on the same day as the policy speech, said in a statement: “Talent is key to propelling innovation. We are pleased to see that the government has proposed different measures to proactively recruit talent, ranging from increasing the number of UGC-funded research postgraduate places to recruiting graduates from the world’s top 100 universities and the Greater Bay Area campuses of local universities to work in Hong Kong.”

She added: “We will work with our newly-opened HKUST (Guangzhou) to nurture more high-calibre talent, so as to inject new impetus into Hong Kong’s development.”