Hong Kong courts mainland Chinese eager for more money and freedom

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For businessman Luan Yi, leaving the Chinese tech hub of Shenzhen for Hong Kong was a no-brainer, in part because of the territory’s more open market and looser rules on Internet access.

In Hong Kong it is easier to use YouTube, which is virtually blocked on the mainland, to promote your work. “As a content creator I feel like I’m in Hong Kong. . . It is a good place to stimulate creativity,” said Luan, who runs a software development and media production company in the city.

The 30-year-old is one of tens of thousands of mainland Chinese who have obtained a visa to live and work in Hong Kong, which is trying to maintain its appeal in the wake of the pandemic and political crackdown. There are strict rules governing movement within China and its territories, meaning Chinese citizens do not have automatic residency rights in Hong Kong.

Since the beginning of 2023, Hong Kong authorities have approved visas for more than 93,600 people from mainland China, many of them young professionals from cities such as Shenzhen and Shanghai.

At a talent conference organized this month by Hong Kong authorities, city leader John Lee said more than 120,000 people, including mainlanders, had settled in Hong Kong since the end of 2022 under the territory’s talent admission programs. “Many more will follow. “I have confidence in that,” he stated.

“In Hong Kong you not only get top-notch job opportunities, but also enjoy a fulfilling life,” Lee added. “Hong Kong has excellent trade prospects. . . (and) the only place in the world where global advantage and China advantage come together in one city.”

Hong Kong has offered multiple visa schemes for mainland Chinese and foreign applicants. About 102,600 people applied for the two main mainland entry programs in 2023, an increase of more than 240 percent from the previous year, when borders were closed. More than 32,000 of those applicants received visas.

Almost all of the 72,000 applicants for the independent “top talent” scheme will be launched by the end of 2022, and is open to anyone from the mainland or abroad with a bachelor’s degree from a top university or with an annual income of at least 2.5 million Hong Kong dollars ($320,000) – were from mainland China. More than 94 percent of the 58,895 approvals were for people from the mainland.

For the Chinese, the attractions are clear. Amid an economic slowdown and tightening political control on the mainland, Hong Kong offers higher wages, lower taxes and greater relative freedom. While YouTube had to remove links to a Hong Kong protest song after a court ruling, the service remains widely available in the territory.

In Shanghai, Hong Kong migration plans have been widely discussed among the city’s middle class after a severe Covid-19 lockdown and stricter political environment.

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For those who cannot gain access through programs aimed specifically at mainlanders, there are other options.

The capital investment immigration scheme, open since March to those willing to invest HK$30 million in the city, is not aimed at mainlanders, but is open to mainlanders who are permanent residents in a foreign country .

In turn, residency, for example, on the Pacific island of Vanuatu can be obtained in a matter of weeks, said Sally Cheung, district executive director of Hong Kong-based Kingkey Family Office. The entire package, including applications and passports, for a family of four costs about 170,000 yuan ($23,000), she said.

Many mainland Chinese clients “basically see no harm in taking the path to Hong Kong residency,” Cheung said. While many people have moved to Singapore in recent years, the strong transport links and proximity to the mainland are an advantage, he said.

Others who are aware of the weakness in Hong Kong markets and recent job cuts for bankers remain cautious.

Grace, a 28-year-old banker who was laid off in Shenzhen last year, got a visa to Hong Kong but ultimately did not move. She stayed to work in the wealth management unit of a European bank in Shenzhen.

“If market sentiment in Hong Kong improves over the next year, it would actually still be very attractive for me to move and work there,” he said.

Not all mainlanders choose to stay in Hong Kong. Gao, a 34-year-old commodities analyst, moved to Singapore in recent months. “I had thought about maintaining and (extending) my Hong Kong visa status. . . but it is too troublesome,” Gao said. “Will all those efforts bear fruit?” . . And is a Hong Kong visa really that important? “I couldn’t decide which one is better.”

Luan, who earned her master’s degree in the United States, plans to remain in Hong Kong long-term, even outlining her 1-year-old son’s future education in the city. Hong Kong’s “more internationalized” curriculum could offer the child “broader exposure.”

“Hong Kong still has a lot of appeal,” he said. “Now I have founded a company in Hong Kong. . . “I hope to be in Hong Kong for a long time.”

Additional reporting by Andy Lin in Hong Kong and Nic Fildes in Sydney

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