What’s the first step to solve a problem? Admit there is one

It took our government three years to admit that “Yes, we have a brain drain.” All my respect for our chief executive for categorically admitting that Hong Kong has been suffering from a brain drain. Now we just need to get going to solve this problem. This column provides some suggestions for our administration to consider.

What happened factually?

Last year, Hong Kong saw a net workforce outflow of 140,000, not a big percentage (4 percent) relatively to the total labor count of 3.7 million, but the devil is in the details. Two-thirds of this outflow was highly skilled labor, indicating the workers were high-earning, high-economic-value (and tax-paying) contributors in our society. Arriving expatriates dropped 23 percent year-on-year, threatening to weaken our status as an international city. Overlay this with the fact that half of the total outflow was aged between 25 and 39, meaning every single one of the 78,000 who left should have had 20-plus more years of working career ahead of them; creating job opportunities, developing talents, raising families and paying taxes to support our aging population. Is it a big deal? Yes, it’s a very big deal.

So what is our government going to do?

“Trawling for talents” for the city is what the government has said literally word-for-word in the Policy Address. Multiple measures were announced to attract talents from the Chinese mainland and abroad to come to Hong Kong, with a special focus toward those who are highly skilled and high-income earners. For example, allowing recent graduates from the world’s top 100 universities to work in Hong Kong with automatic work-visa exemptions. High-earning expatriate executives can purchase property with stamp duty exemptions, relaxing the quota for previously sought-after immigration programs, etc. How effective these measures will be remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: We have never witnessed such a commitment from the government to directly incentivize and subsidize international talents to come, work and live in Hong Kong from a financial point of view. Bravo.

How to get the message out?

Hong Kong remains one of the most exciting, diverse and free economies in the world. It is the city where the East truly meets the West. The Fraser Institute has consistently ranked Hong Kong as the world’s freest economy in their Economic Freedom of the World annual reports. We know we will be back, transformed in many ways but still a great place to live.

I suggest the government identify different types of talents they want and create specific messages to these groups accordingly:

To send messages to fresh graduates of top universities, InvestHK and the Economic and Trade Offices should hold career fairs at top universities to promote Hong Kong as a place to launch their careers. Come to the international cultural melting pot, where “work hard, play hard” is the name of the game. It is where everyone knows everyone else, and is the hub for traveling across the Asia-Pacific for holidays. The city next to the second-largest economy in the world!

For families with young children: Promote Hong Kong’s international-school sector and private recreational clubs to give the comfort in mind that their family members will enjoy being here. In fact, it has never been a better time for expat children to come to Hong Kong to study, as it is home to over 50 high-quality international schools, many of which have places to accommodate children from abroad.

To attract senior executives: Work with top global executive search and relocation companies; educate them on how easy and seamless it is for them to move to Hong Kong. If they want to diversify their real estate portfolio, the government has great incentives for them. Hong Kong also boasts a great healthcare system, by the way.

In conclusion, our government needs to recognize that in order to attract talent back to Hong Kong from abroad, loud and clear messages must reach those who are no longer here — a difficult task, to say the least.

The author is co-convenor of China Retold and a district councilor in the Peak Constituency.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.