Mainland a land of opportunity for Hong Kong youths?

The precariousness of my position as a Hong Konger in the mainland job market was brought home to me in the most unlikely of places.

I was in the backstage of a Miss Asia beauty pageant – this was when Asia Television was still in business – captivated by the physical charms of the swimsuit-clad contestants as they sashayed out to the stage and back when I was struck a parallel between these girls and the many brilliant mainlanders I’d met in Beijing and Shanghai: just as these girls are generally markedly more beautiful than Miss Hong Kong contestants because they are recruited from all over China (whereas most of those who sign up for Miss Hong Kong are local women ), so, it’s only natural for me to feel I can’t measure up to the cream of mainland talent in China’s first-tier cities – both the girls and those super-smart mainlanders come from a pool of 1.4 billion people.

Still, because I first sought employment in mainland (as a fresh graduate) in 2005, at a time when Beijing’s joining of the World Trade Organization was already having an impact – Beijing and Shanghai were bustling with new businesses and people were brimming with hope –  not only did I have no problem finding work. Thanks to my facility in English – back then this was still a rare commodity – I changed four jobs in the first six years. Opportunities were so abundant – a popular topic at dinner gatherings was “when will you resign?” – that frequent job-hopping was a badge of honor, a proof of one’s worth.

Fast forward 15 years. How will today’s fresh graduates in Hong Kong fare in the super-competitive mainland job market? Despite the Hong Kong government’s urging to Hong Kong youths that they should head north, the reality is China’s macroeconomic environment has changed entirely. The exodus of foreign firms that had already begun before Xi Jinping took power accelerated as the US-China relationship deteriorated; without a strong domestic research-and-development base, China is mired in the middle-income trap; its population is greying and skyrocketing real estate prices are weighing on middle class household consumption. On top of all this, Xi’s bolstering of state-owned enterprise at the expense of private enterprises – the latter is responsible for 80% of employment – has meant more people are chasing fewer jobs. Last year, 8.74 million fresh graduates hit the job market; the figure this year is an estimated 9.01 million. Painfully aware of the risk posed by masses of unemployed urban youths, Beijing has been exhorting them to work in the rural hinterlands.

The cooling of mainland’s once-hot economy has caused anxiety even among students at China’s most prestigious universities; they react by doubling down on their efforts to study. Last year, a photo of a Tsinghua University student fixing his eyes on his laptop while riding his bike went viral, summing up the universal panic of China’s best and brightest: when one hardworking person pressures everyone else to exert themselves further, no one will receive payback on her extra effort because the playing field itself has been raised. The photo struck a chord, and soon, photos of other Tsinghua students hard at work began circulating: one ate noodles while cycling (to save time); one was so exhausted from studying that he fell asleep during lunch; one was shown reading a book in a bed crammed with books. A fresh graduate who sat for the written test Bank of China required job applicants to take ruffled feathers further when he spoke of the test’s content:  “I’m made to feel I’m a piece of trash,” for among the topics he was expected to know were the radius of a satellite, the static equilibrium for a particle, The Treaty of Versailles, the K shell of an atom, DES encryption, microprocessors, Modernist poets, and open-source software.

The concerns these cream-of-the-crop young mainlanders have about their prospects are exacerbated by their awareness that even if they managed to be hired by big-name  companies, their shelf-lives are likely to be short. Huawei, Alibaba and Tencent have all adhered to the practice of culling employees over 35 years of age who aren’t in management ranks, leading the media to write headlines such as “Are high-tech workers condemned to sell insurance after 35?”

“Hong Kong’s senior officials fancy themselves as authorities on China when their only exposure to this complex country is confined to the occasional two-day trip heavily organized by the CCP,” scorns film-star-turned-businessman David Siu Chung-hang (邵仲衡), whose own hard-won knowledge of mainland came from 20 years of running an all-terrain vehicle company there. I can’t claim to be as mainland-savvy as Siu, but when I was working in China, half of my bed was occupied by books, so my understanding of the place is based on a combination of real-life encounters and book knowledge. Elsewhere I’ve explained why I left mainland.

Perhaps Hong Kong youths mulling whether to throw their lot with the CCP should listen to me rather than to agenda-driven Hong Kong officials.

I'm Michelle Ng (吳若琦), an Oxford-educated bilingual political writer and English writing coach based in Hong Kong. I'm currently an English columnist for Apple Daily and Ming Pao, and a Chinese columnist for 眾新聞. I have written for Hong Kong Free Press, The Wall Street Journal and The Vancouver Sun. 

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