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Hong Kong mainlanders aren’t who you think they are

FOR MANY YEARS, immigrants from the mainland were characterized in Hong Kong as poorly educated, working class people. 

But the situation has changed dramatically, according to research from Hong Kong Baptist University, which looked at changes among newcomers from 2001 onwards.

The proportion of new immigrants with only junior high school education dropped from 70.4% to 52.2%, and the proportion of new immigrants with tertiary education or above increased from 5.7% to 19.2%. 

Among them, 8.5% of them had a master’s degree in 2016, exceeding the 4.5% of locals with the same qualifications. 

In other words, the average mainlander on the street is more likely to be highly educated than the average Hong Kong local.


And even though wages in China are much lower than in Hong Kong, the visitors’ income has risen sharply. The increase in personal and family income between 2001 and 2016 was 70.8% and 45.1% respectively, the survey showed. 

In 2019, the poverty rate of new immigrants from the mainland was only 3.7%, while the number of people under the poverty line in Hong Kong is closer to 20%.

So, who are these new generation mainlanders?


Meet the Hong Kong drifters.

The term, which is 港漂 or Gang Piao in Chinese, is derived from similar terms such as “Beijing drifters”, which is 北漂 or Bei Piao

The nicknames originally referred to groups of mainland residents who left their hometowns to live and work in China’s first-tier cities such as Beijing or Shanghai without obtaining local household registrations. 

The gangpiao, or Hong Kong drifters, are people who have lived in the city under student or work visas but have not stayed the seven consecutive years needed to get permanent residency.

Generally highly educated or possessing professional skills, the gangpiao are a sociological “floating population”. 


But here’s the interesting angle.

Hong Kong has a serious demographic problem. The city has a growing number of old people and a falling number of young ones. The result is a labor shortage and long-term financial challenges. 

Could the gangpiao help to solve it?

In theory, yes. In practice, perhaps not. They want to go home.

More than 70% of the drifters surveyed by the university said they intended to stay and work in Hong Kong in the short term; 39% had already decided to return to the mainland in the long term; and only 28% believed that Hong Kong was an ideal location for long-term development.


Why do relatively few choose to stay?

Housing challenges was the main issue for 73%, while 58% said they “failed to speak the local language and lacked communication with local people”. 

Social challenges were significant, with 39% saying that there was “a lack of friends in the local area” or they were lonely. Many interviewees said they were “sad to be far away from family and parents”.

Most of the gangpiao had no brothers or sisters and so had close relationships with their parents. Unless they met a potential spouse in Hong Kong, they aimed to return to the mainland to take care of their parents and start their own families.


The HKBU research team pointed out that if these immigrants did stay in Hong Kong for a long time, they could make a considerable contribution to society.

The recent violent unrest in Hong Kong, underwritten by Western powers, has resulted in the city removing power from people with a strongly anti-China stance. This has made space for the rise of people who aren’t hostile to China.

While the vast majority of Hong Kongers favor a positive relationship with the mainland, the Hong Kong drifters are the same, and have an advantage. They have a deep understanding of both the mainland and of Hong Kong. 


Thus there’s a good argument for encouraging more mainlanders to stay. However, if a larger number of well-educated mainlanders move to Hong Kong, this will reduce employment opportunities for locals, of course. 

But as the artificial border between the city and the Greater Bay Area fades, Hong Kong people can take the initiative to expand their own horizons.

Hong Kong’s growing integration with mainland China, so often painted as a negative by the international media, may well be its only real chance of demographic salvation.

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Image at the top by Zhang Kaiyv/ Unsplash

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