Why Mainland Chinese Flocked to Hong Kong’s New Global Visa

Mainlanders flock to Hong Kong

To some foreign expats, Hong Kong has lost its appeal since Beijing took a heavier hand in its governance. When the city tried to lure global professionals with a “top talent” visa, 95 percent of the applicants were mainland Chinese people seeking better jobs and greater freedom.

Mood: Hong Kong faces a deep pessimism — the economy is struggling, but the pro-Beijing government has focused on national security.

NYTimes, 20-III-24

Why Mainland Chinese Flocked to Hong Kong’s New Global Visa

The city created a visa to lure professionals from around the world. Most of the takers were Chinese seeking better jobs, better schools and greater freedom.

Reporting from Hong Kong

March 20, 2024, 12:00 a.m. ET

To some foreign expatriates, Hong Kong has lost its appeal as an international city and no longer feels like home since Beijing took a heavier hand in its governance. But for many former mainland Chinese like Angelina Wang, it has become a more attractive place to live and work.

Ms. Wang, in her early 30s, was feeling stuck in her job at a state-owned finance company in Shenzhen, a mainland city just across the border, when she read about a Hong Kong visa for professional workers. She quickly applied. As soon as she landed a job in Hong Kong — at higher pay — she told her boss that she was quitting and moved there.

“Salary in Hong Kong is higher than that in Shenzhen,” Ms. Wang said. “A lot higher.”

Ms. Wang was among about 55,000 mainland Chinese who have been granted this new “top talent” visa since December 2022. Hong Kong’s semiautonomous status within China means that Chinese citizens need visas to live and work in the city.

Among visa holders now working in Hong Kong, many were employed in finance, information technology and commerce services, according to a survey by the city government in November. They had a monthly median income of 50,000 Hong Kong dollars, or about $6,400, more than twice the median income in Hong Kong.

Mainland Chinese interviewed by The New York Times cited several reasons for seeking the visa. Some said Hong Kong provided better pay and career opportunities, as well as better schools, greater freedom, and greater respect for women and people who are L.G.B.T.Q.

The wave of working professionals is a welcome development for Hong Kong. Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the city in 2020 in response to pro-democracy protests, and on Tuesday the Hong Kong government enacted another security law that gave the authorities even more power to punish dissent. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Hong Kong rolled out some of the world’s toughest travel restrictions, hurting its economy. About 200,000 people left the city from the middle of 2019 to the end of 2022, according to city figures. The population has since ticked up by about the same amount to 7.5 million.

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People on a hill, overlooking a city below surrounded by water.
Hong Kong gained its reputation as an international city under its semiautonomous status when it was a British colony.Credit...Anthony Kwan for The New York Times
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Exchange Square in Central, a major Hong Kong financial district. Another attraction of the city is its more open financial system.Credit...Anthony Kwan for The New York Times

The visa program that Ms. Wang applied to, called the Top Talent Pass Scheme, was designed to appeal worldwide. So far 95 percent of the applications have come from mainland China. The visa lasts for two years and can be extended as long as the holder remains employd by a local company or is self-employed by the time the visa expires.

The top talent visa is the easiest visa for mainland Chinese professionals to obtain. Visa holders don’t have to be employed when they arrive. They can qualify by having either a bachelor’s degree from one of the world’s top 185 universities or an annual income over $320,000.

One factor propelling mainlanders to seek the Hong Kong visa is China’s economy, which is experiencing a sharp real estate downturn. Ms. Wang, who works as a risk manager, said she was making better money in Hong Kong.

Another attraction is Hong Kong’s open financial system, which provides more appealing job opportunities for people who work in banking or finance.

In the eyes of Chang Liang, a fund manager from Shanghai working in Hong Kong with a top talent visa, access to global markets offers advantages for people in his field.

“My business requires me to travel overseas frequently,” he said, and it’s easy to catch flights from Hong Kong. “The ease for travel is the major reason for my application for the Hong Kong visa,” he added.

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ong Kong’s schools are another draw for mainland Chinese. Three-quarters of 1,200 workers with various visas who were surveyed last fall by the Hong Kong Top Talent Services Association planned to enroll their children in Hong Kong schools. They said they believed that the schools offered a better education than their children’s schools on the mainland, with a stronger focus on English learning.

About 36,000 children of top talent visa holders have been granted dependent visas to live in Hong Kong, according to the latest government data.

On the social media platform Xiaohongshu, conversations with the hashtag “transferring to a new school in Hong Kong” have been viewed over eight million times.

Another talent visa holder, Elsa Chen, who is in her late 30s, landed a job as a brand specialist at a Hong Kong firm. She was planning to bring her 6-year-old son from Foshan, a midsize city in Guangdong Province, because of the schools.

“His class is packed with more than 50 students, but in Hong Kong, an average class has only about 20 students,” she said.

Apart from citing tangible differences between Hong Kong and mainland China, several holders of top talent visas spoke of less visible ones, like the rule of law.

As a British colony, Hong Kong was long allowed to exercise a high degree of autonomy over its governance and laws — a system that China promised to continue after Britain handed over control in 1997. This status has come under question in the past several years. Still, some of the migrants said they saw Hong Kong as an escape from mainland China.

Phoebe Ho, 27, said she had faced frequent sexual harassment in her job as a marketing officer at a major state-owned company in China. She felt unable to push back. She got the visa hoping to broaden her career options and find a better work culture.

Ms. Ho, who is lesbian, also noted that Hong Kong recognizes the rights of gay partners, even though it does not officially recognize same-sex marriage.

Phoebe Ho came to Hong Kong hoping to find better work opportunities and a better work culture for women.Credit...Anthony Kwan for The New York Times
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Will Wu initially hoped to emigrate to Canada, but moving to Hong Kong with a top talent visa was easier.Credit...Anthony Kwan for The New York Times

Will Wu, a banker from northern China, decided to leave China during the harsh Covid lockdown in 2022. He initially hoped to emigrate to Canada, but moving to Hong Kong under the top talent visa was easier.

“If China is a big ship, then Hong Kong is a lifeboat,” Mr. Wu said.

He did not get as big a salary boost in Hong Kong as he had hoped, moving into another finance job, but he still thinks the move was worth it. Hong Kong, he said, “is not a particularly free place, but you know people here share an ideology that respects law.” He hopes to stay long enough to become a permanent resident, which typically takes seven years.

The ordeal of Covid was also the last straw for Luka Liu, a logistics specialist, and his wife, Lorraine Liu, an accountant. The couple, both 27, had been thinking about leaving China. They had grown tired of having to attend Communist Party study sessions at their workplaces, a common activity in both the public and private sectors in recent years.

But the authorities in Hong Kong continue to hew closer to Beijing’s rules. In February, they added a new national security assessment as part of the visa application process to ensure that people they define as a threat to Hong Kong cannot enter.

“If our conversation today is being monitored, or we are interrogated by our company or community, we won’t hesitate to take our passports to go anywhere with freedom,” Mr. Liu said.

“You can stop me from speaking out,” he added, “but you can’t change what I think and do.”

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Joy Dong covers news in mainland China and Hong Kong. She is based in Hong Kong. @JoyDongHK More about Joy Dong