Hong Kong moving beyond pandemic and protests, says v-c

Territory has moved past wave of brain drain, with some beginning to return and new opportunities for international recruitment, according to Rocky Tuan

July 2, 2023
A banner reading 'We missed you! Welcome back!' hangs at the entrance of Hong Kong Ocean Park to illustrate Hong Kong moving beyond pandemic and protests, says v-c
Source: Getty images

Hong Kong’s brain drain is beginning to reverse, with the territory’s higher education sector poised to attract talent from around the world, the head of one of its leading institutions has claimed.

Rocky Tuan, vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), argued that the city was ripe for an influx of talent, with international student recruitment rebounding and some faculty beginning to return.

Significant numbers of people left Hong Kong over the last few years, with many citing its strict Covid-19 measures as well as the controversial National Security Law, which prompted widespread student protests, including at CUHK.

In 2022, Hong Kong’s population shrank by about 25,000, the largest drop over a 12-month period since records began in 1961, with emigration to countries including the UK a big contributor. Professor Tuan acknowledged that some people left because of the National Security Law, but he said he believed Hong Kong was moving past this.

“That was a little blip, but that blip is over,” he said. “Some folks who moved from Hong Kong, they’re coming back.”

Professor Tuan noted that the ebb of the Covid-19-related lockdowns had also helped. He compared the pandemic to a “massive tsunami” that “covered all things”, making it not so simple to understand why people left Hong Kong. But he said he was upbeat about the prospects for a strong comeback – and for the university to surpass previous faculty recruitment figures and attract students from further afield.

He said he was keen to promote other draws at CUHK, including its cooperative education programme – the first and only initiative of its type among Hong Kong universities – which places CUHK students into well-paid internships of up to eight months. Many of these turn into full-time jobs after graduation.

“We have 30 per cent of our cooperative students being international; I think this will germinate into a pretty attractive criterion for international students to come here,” he said.

Already, CUHK’s 2023-24 application numbers from non-local students – excluding the strong demand from Chinese students – had exceeded pre-Covid levels, noted Laurie Pearcey, its associate vice-president for external engagement and outreach.

“We’re back in business; we’ve rebounded quite substantially,” he said.

Along with other universities, CUHK is working to further expand the sector’s reach to places where “maybe we haven’t done as much reaching out before”, according to Professor Tuan. These included the Arab states and central and south-east Asia, he said.

“Personally, I’m also pushing for South America, Central America and perhaps India…also Europe,” Professor Tuan said.

But geopolitics was still undeniably a hurdle, he admitted. Notably, US foreign policy had had a negative and “detectable” impact on the number of US students coming to the island, he said.

“If you read the US State Department travel advisory, Hong Kong is orange,” said Professor Tuan. “They say that if you come to Hong Kong, you get arrested and no one can protect you – which is totally overblown...completely crazy. I have seen no evidence of that.”

But despite ongoing tension with the US and other potential hurdles in the region, such as demographic decline and “monkey wrenches” thrown in by the pandemic, Professor Tuan’s message was clear.

“Asia is rising,” he said, and Hong Kong would undoubtedly be part of that.


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