At the Christmas Conference on the 20th of December, the Hon. Jasper Tsang and Ms Doris Leung gave very interesting answers to a question about the reduced social mobility of Hong Kong youths. The gist of it was that the wealth gap and lack of social mobility has not changed, and it is only because it has become more visible that it is perceived to have grown. But is this really the case? Have the younger generation always had a harder time climbing up the social ladder?
Prior to China’s economic reforms and opening to trade, Hong Kong had the advantage of being the gateway between the vast Chinese market and foreign exporters. Hong Kong graduates had relatively high levels of education, a good grasp of both English and Chinese, and a unique position of understanding both Western and Chinese culture and customs. For entry-level jobs, there was no competition beyond the colony’s borders. Financial stability and quick career progression were not beyond reach.
But how about today? Hong Kong is still a gateway between China and the rest of world, but this function has been gradually taken over by other cities such as Shanghai. Hong Kong graduates also no longer have a competitive advantage over their Chinese counterparts, especially when trying to enter large multinational firms. First of all, the competition to get into university in the first place is of a completely different level on the Mainland; their intelligence and work ethic has already been recognized by the system as being superior from day one, and graduates are elites from the day they step out of school. Secondly, the current generation of Mainland Chinese graduating from universities abroad have every advantage that Hong Kong graduates used to have, in addition to a much better understanding of Chinese society, politics and markets. As such, Hong Kong graduates have to face much greater competition from their Mainland counterparts when entering the workforce.
In addition, Hong Kong’s economy has already finished its age of rapid growth – jobs are harder to find, and it is much more difficult to rise through the ranks at the same pace as before since positions at more senior levels are taken by those still some ways away from retirement. This is a good part due to Hong Kong’s ‘brain drain’ in the ‘80s, when the elites of society immigrated to the West in fear of the city’s post-handover future, which allowed the elites today to rise through the ranks so quickly. Therefore, Hong Kong graduates are plagued by both increased competition at entry-level and a glass ceiling of sorts once they embark on their career paths.
So, what can Hong Kong graduates do to improve their prospects? What can Hong Kong’s economy do to compete with the Chinese cities hot on its heels? The answer is diversification, not only on the individual level but also on the structural level – be different, be unique, and chances will likely come.