Drive to plug civil service ‘brain drain’ targets students

The Hong Kong government this week launched a new drive to recruit graduates to the city’s civil service which is facing a recruitment crunch due to the exodus of professionals and civil servants, particularly since Beijing imposed the National Security Law on Hong Kong in 2020.

With an eye on the apparent preference among graduates for private sector jobs, the city’s administration said it will accept applications from students at Hong Kong’s universities as early as their second year of studies rather than their final year as was the previous practice.

Students will receive offers but will only start the jobs once they graduate.

“This initiative is not to snatch people from the private sector but to give greater certainty to those university undergraduates who, before their final year, have already made up their mind they want a career in the civil service,” Hong Kong’s Civil Service Secretary Ingrid Yeung Ho Poi-yan told local media this week.

“It’s to enable them to prepare themselves better for civil service jobs. This is also a measure that has been in place in the private sector for a long time, so we’re simply catching up with what the private sector is doing,” Yeung said.

Under the new arrangements, students on a four-year bachelor degree can apply for certain posts in their second or third year. Students from masters or doctorate programmes can apply a year before graduation.

Students outside Hong Kong

Hong Kong has also eased the civil service application process for Hong Kong students at universities on the Chinese mainland and in other countries in an attempt to lure them back from overseas studies following a general exodus of students after high school matriculation.

Hong Kong’s Civil Service Bureau already conducts recruitment exams in cities outside Hong Kong, including in Beijing, London, San Francisco, New York, Toronto, Vancouver, and Sydney. It plans to include Shanghai as an additional examination venue.

Yeung said the bureau would consider arranging recruitment examinations in more mainland Chinese cities in the future as circumstances required.

Proposals to recruit to the civil service from the mainland have proved controversial in the past. According to Hong Kong’s mini constitution, the Basic Law, public servants must be permanent residents of Hong Kong. However, recruitment activities conducted by the Hong Kong Police in China’s Guangdong and Fujian provinces last November and in Beijing and Wuhan this April, have raised concerns in Hong Kong at the arrival of mainland police in the city.

In 2020 job advertisements seeking “high calibre graduates” for the Hong Kong police service at universities in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom were pulled by the universities in those countries after an outcry by rights groups protesting the role of the police in the 2019-20 pro-democracy unrest in the city.

However, some areas are less controversial. Hong Kong’s public health system, which is suffering from a dire shortage of doctors, launched a ‘global talent scheme’ to lure young medical professionals, including medical students, interns and trainees, to work in Hong Kong.

Chairman of Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority Henry Fan Hung-ling said in May that 130 job offers were made to doctors and medical students in the UK as part of the recruitment drive in that country, which he said will be extended to Australia. Around 80% of the 30 or so people in the UK who accepted the Hospital Authority offers were Hong Kong residents, he said.

The Hong Kong government also introduced a registration scheme in 2021 that allowed graduates from the world’s top medical schools to work in the city without passing a licensing exam. Some 75 medical qualifications from countries including the UK, the United States and Canada were included in the scheme, but less than a dozen personnel were recruited under that scheme in 2022.

Spike in civil service departures

Hong Kong has seen a wave of emigration following the 2019-20 protests, with several Western countries providing citizenship pathways for residents and their families. A record low birth rate has also contributed to the population decline.

According to official figures, in common with a general exodus from the city, Hong Kong’s government lost 4.8% of its civil service or 8,500 people in the 2021 financial year and 5.9% of civil service staff or 10,500 in 2022. Of those who left last year, 5,500 were resignations rather than retirements – a new high of resignations from Hong Kong’s once popular and highly regarded civil service. Departures have tripled compared to five years ago.

The age group 25-30 saw a high number of exiting civil servants, at 800, as well as public servants in their 30s.

Between 1 April and 30 June 2022 alone, as many as 944 quit the civil service, according to the Civil Service Bureau in a document to Hong Kong’s legislature in January this year. In particular, the police had a record 6,312 vacancies.

Also hit hard was the education sector. According to official data, about 6,500 teachers quit or retired from their jobs at Hong Kong schools in the last academic year – almost double the average figure before the emigration wave began in 2020, the year Beijing imposed the National Security Law on Hong Kong. Around 12,000 teachers have left since 2021.

“With the implementation of the National Security Law, [teachers] are under great pressure in terms of teaching, especially with patriotic education and the understanding of the country’s system,” Leung Chau-ting, chairperson of the Hong Kong Federation of Civil Service Union, told local media.

He said teachers were fearful of complaints about ‘problematic’ teaching and they could also lose their teaching qualification – a possibility that puts teachers off the public education system.

Most students currently going through Hong Kong’s universities left school before the implementation of patriotic education in schools after the authorities blamed the widespread participation of young people in the 2019-20 protests on the failure of schools and universities to discipline their students.

Pledge of allegiance

Wong Kin-ho, chairman of the Hong Kong Education Workers Union and a secondary school vice-principal, attributed the surge in resignations to the emigration wave, as well some teachers’ reluctance to take the required pledge of allegiance to the government following the implementation of the National Security Law in 2020.

It has become compulsory for new teachers to pass exams on national security and go on study tours to China.

As of July last year, seven people had had their teaching registrations revoked over their roles in anti-government protests, according to local media. Around 89 civil servants were arrested over social unrest in 2019. Five were recently convicted in court with disciplinary action pending against them.

Civil servants in Hong Kong, which number around 175,000, are now required to pledge allegiance to the Basic Law and to uphold the National Security Law. They are also required to be politically neutral.

However, Yeung said last month the political neutrality rule – a core value under the civil service code of conduct – would be dropped and replaced with a requirement of impartiality.

This is because academics have pointed out in the past that the ‘political neutrality’ could be seen as against the code if, for example, teachers and academics are required to teach or promote ‘patriotism’ in schools.

“Political neutrality cannot be used as an excuse to evade tasks decided upon by the government,” Yeung told the Legislative Council’s public service panel last October.

The current policy allows civil servants – with the exception of high-ranking officers, the police and certain other categories of officials – to join any political party or take part in related activities, as long as it does not give rise to a perception of bias or conflict of interest.