Published: 00:46, August 15, 2022 | Updated: 10:07, August 15, 2022
Firm action is required to address SAR's brain drain
By Tse Wai-chuen

Last month, Mr John Lee Ka-chiu attended his first question-and-answer session in the Legislative Council as the chief executive. 

Although I had planned to ask the new CE about his land and housing policy, at his opening speech, Mr Lee took the initiative to outline his plans to increase the land and housing supply, including the formation of two task forces to speed up public-housing construction. Therefore, noting that the chief executive failed to mention his administration’s plans to address the growing brain drain and manpower shortage, I decided to take the opportunity to inquire about the government’s talent-and-population policy.

Over the past few years, many industries, including the architectural, surveying, planning and landscape (ASPL) sectors I represent in the Legislative Council, have been experiencing a noticeable brain drain. A multitude of reasons have led to the shortage, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and strict border regulations that have discouraged some nonlocal talents from working in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s lack of medical staff is precisely the result of the government’s weak resolve. Its nonintervention and refusal to act for the past two decades have been the precise causes of our medical manpower shortage. So the only way we can avoid this mistake is for the government to take prompt and effective action

Most notably, however, is the emigration wave, which has been wreaking havoc on Hong Kong’s labor force. According to the Immigration Department, Hong Kong experienced an outflow of 140,000 residents in the first three months of 2022. Using the number of applications for the early withdrawal of the Mandatory Provident Fund and Certificate of No Criminal Convictions, it is estimated that one-fourth to one-third of them are emigrants. Although the past has shown that many emigrants will eventually return because of financial, cultural or other issues, until that happens, Hong Kong will be facing a labor shortage in the short term. The emigration wave is certainly worrying, but Hong Kong’s struggle with our labor shortage should hardly be a surprise.

In March 2019, three years before the emigration wave and the preceding riots and pandemic, I had written a column outlining that Hong Kong is facing an aging population, record-breaking low birth rates, and a decreasing number of mainland immigrants, particularly young immigrants, through the One-way Permit Scheme. In view of these factors, I had already warned against the coming shortage of talents and manpower. Sadly, the past three years have shown that the special administrative region government has done little to actively respond to this issue.

As a result, the problems of Hong Kong’s manpower shortage have begun to rise as obstacles to our development. For instance, without sufficient and high-quality labor, how will we replicate the “strong impetus for growth” that President Xi Jinping emphasized in his July 1 keynote speech? When the professionals, technically competent people and grassroots workers of the construction industry, are all in short supply, how will we increase the efficiency and effectiveness of land identification and housing construction as Mr John Lee proposed?

The chief executive has expressed his plan to increase Hong Kong’s desirability for foreign talents through reforming border restrictions, and providing development opportunities and publicity. Although I agree that such measures need to be implemented, it is believed that overreliance on foreign firms and labor will not be the best option for Hong Kong in the long run, especially as trade protectionism and geopolitical disputes appear to be on the rise. The emigration of those who fail to respect the rule of law and “one country, two systems” may not be too bad for the HKSAR overall. However, we cannot deal with the resulting brain drain without a viable strategy.

I believe that the most direct and impactful solution, least affected by external factors, would be increasing local training opportunities, especially for the professional and technical sectors. In the past, the government has been largely unresponsive to requests for increasing local training. For example, the previous administration had successively put forward large-scale development plans such as the Lantau Tomorrow Vision and the Northern Metropolis. With these mega projects in place, the demand for professionals and technical workers in the development and construction sectors was likely to increase. As a result, I urged the authorities to increase the number of courses and university places related to the ASPL sector in local universities.

However, the relevant department only pushed the issue to the Education Bureau before it was again redirected to the University Grants Committee (UGC). Frustratingly, the UGC then categorized the decision under “university autonomy”, officially taking it out of the government’s control. Given that university funding mainly consists of taxpayer money, in what world does responding to government policy and market demands in a timely manner count as violating university autonomy? Hong Kong’s lack of medical staff is precisely the result of the government’s weak resolve. Its nonintervention and refusal to act for the past two decades have been the precise causes of our medical manpower shortage. So the only way we can avoid this mistake is for the government to take prompt and effective action.

In recent years, the government has increased university funding with the requirement that the number of available spots in the medical curriculum increases. As this decision has received broad support, I believe the same can be replicated with professional and technical training for the construction and development sectors. I sincerely hope that the new administration and the chief executive will actively respond in kind.

The author is a member of the Legislative Council representing the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape Functional Constituency.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.