Hong Kong — a melting pot, backed by its array of top universities and job incentives — is going the extra mile to lure world-class academics and researchers to work in the city and make it their home. Zhang Tianyuan reports from Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s long-standing reputation as a cosmopolitan hot spot, where East and West cultures intersect and diverse communities congregate, is a cornerstone of the city’s economic, educational and social success.

The SAR has been an ideal destination and a magnet for scholars and researchers worldwide, boasting clusters of top-notch institutions of higher learning, cutting-edge research centers, and a thriving academic coterie. Despite the years-long COVID-19 pandemic and high living costs, which have prodded some educators to leave the intellectually renowned city for new adventures and careers abroad, Hong Kong remains attractive to the global academia, with its favorable policies, high-paying jobs and a balanced lifestyle.

One of Hong Kong’s advantages is its diverse range of possibilities that allow individuals to discuss and present different perspectives and ideas.

Zhou Shuo, associate professor in communications at Hong Kong Baptist University

Getting talent back to Hong Kong was high on the agenda of Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu’s maiden Policy Address in October, as well as the 2023-24 Budget delivered by Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po last month. A slew of initiatives aimed at enticing migrant professionals to come or return to the SAR was rolled out, including loosening visa requirements and offering them research funding.

The Top Talent Pass Scheme, which was launched late last year to attract top talent with sophisticated work experience or outstanding educational backgrounds, had drawn more than 14,000 applications by the end of February. Over half of the applicants are younger than 30 years old, according to Secretary for Labor and Welfare Chris Sun Yuk-han.

But creating and retaining a large, cosmopolitan talent pool takes far more than just offering jobs and handsome remuneration. Hong Kong’s unique advantages under the “one country, two systems” principle have been instrumental in bridging the gap between the Chinese mainland and the world, luring academicians to the financial hub, with abundant career opportunities up for grabs in the SAR and on the mainland.

Zhou Shuo, an associate professor in communications at Hong Kong Baptist University, poses for a photo in Denver, capital of the US state of Colorado, in 2021. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Seek meaningful chance

Zhou Shuo, an associate professor in communications who joined Hong Kong Baptist University after studying and working in the United States for over a decade, said the pandemic has changed people’s mindsets. “Instead of just looking for a job, people now seek opportunities that they find truly meaningful and with a full impact,” she said.

Specializing in developing narrative-based communication strategies, using emerging technologies for disease prevention, Zhou has carried out a number of health promotion projects, such as helping minority groups in the US enhance their awareness of protecting themselves from COVID-19 through an artificial intelligence-powered chatbot.

“What I have accomplished in the US can be similarly applied in Hong Kong,” said Zhou, who graduated from HKBU in 2012. “It’s my responsibility to leverage my expertise and experience in helping people here to lead healthier and happier lives. This is in line with one of academia’s significant objectives.”

HKBU has set up six interdisciplinary labs, including those for visual art, social work, and computer science, which Zhou said she believes are pertinent to her comprehensive studies. “My colleagues here are open to collaboration, and I appreciate the chance to liaise with people from various fields and cultivate innovative ideas through our interactions.”

Zhou’s current research focuses on using technology to strengthen the psychological well-being of young people and promote healthy lifestyles among the elderly. The HKSAR government has been placing great emphasis on social issues. The Health Bureau has launched mental health programs in recent years, such as “Shall We Talk”, which aims to reduce the stigma surrounding mental-health issues. Thus, Zhou said, she believes there are numerous opportunities to conduct research on public-health topics in Hong Kong.

“One of Hong Kong’s advantages is its diverse range of possibilities that allow individuals to discuss and present different perspectives and ideas. Moreover, the city attracts scholars with global backgrounds who study problems relating to China and the world, making it a relatively more inclusive place compared to other international cities,” she said.

Zou Sheng, an assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University’s School of Communication, poses for a photo in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong, in December. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

With Hong Kong having poured billions of dollars into bolstering the innovation and technology sector in recent years, Zhou said affected departments should not neglect the importance of humanities and social sciences. “Ultimately, technological advancement is designed to serve human beings. However, people may feel increasingly stressed with the burgeoning array of new tools. This presents a good opportunity for humanities and social sciences to intervene, as we study how people can effectively manage their relationships with these technologies,” she explained.

Elina Tachkova — an assistant professor from Europe who also joined HKBU two years ago to teach students advertising and public relations — said she enjoys life in Hong Kong and can feel the pulse of the city through its vibrant atmosphere and abundant activities. “There are so many things we can do here. We are so close to nature, and it’s just a matter of taking a bus to reach the mountains in no time. Hong Kong is attractive because it has a really good work-life balance.”

“Hong Kong also offers vast opportunities to apply for research grants, such as funding from the Research Grants Council. We are also constantly encouraged to collaborate internationally and attend conferences, with ample resources to do so,” Tachkova said.

“Despite being relatively new to my department at HKBU, I have been offered lots of leadership opportunities that are challenging and rewarding. I truly value the trust the university has placed in me, and the chance to develop my skills through such experiences. I also have the academic freedom to pursue the topics I’m interested in,” she said.

Tachkova suggested Hong Kong universities step up their self-promotion, making their competitive advantages more visible to attract diversified students from around the world. “I believe that exposing students to different perspectives and allowing them to interact and learn from other cultures would be highly beneficial. Such an approach would likely attract more professors with international backgrounds, as well.”

According to online data provider Statista, the number of students from the mainland accounted for more than half of the total number of nonlocal students enrolling at Hong Kong universities funded by the University Grants Committee in the past decade. For the 2019-20 academic year, up to 13,000 nonlocal students at local universities were from the mainland, with over 5,400 others from the rest of Asia and about 860 students from other parts of the world.

Elina Tachkova, an assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, says Hong Kong offers vast opportunities to apply for research grants. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Chinese cultural influence

Zou Sheng, who obtained his doctorate in the US, recently landed a job as an assistant professor at HKBU’s School of Communication. He admitted he’s facing challenges trying to adjust himself to a completely new environment in Hong Kong. After spending eight years in the US, Zou is accustomed to the working and living environments, as well as his network of friends, colleagues and academic connections. But with his lack of experience in the SAR, he has to start everything from scratch, rebuilding his circle of friends and establishing professional and academic networks.

Zou applauds Hong Kong universities for their tenure track system that’s comparable to that of the US, while the local academic environment boasts having a distinct Chinese cultural influence.

Many of his colleagues have conducted research in Chinese media and communication, resulting in a unique blend of Eastern and Western cultures. As such, Zou said he believes such an environment is conducive to his professional development.

While striving for internationalization, Zou said Hong Kong should also think deeper about localization. “In other words, the city should highlight its own perspectives concerning communication and the media, and develop its own system, instead of simply borrowing it from others.”

Oleksandr Pidchosa, an associate professor at Hong Kong Chu Hai College, began his serendipity with Hong Kong by teaching businesspeople at the college in 2018. The following year, the college teamed up with the Institute of International Relations of Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, Ukraine, to establish a joint program offering two master’s programs in business and international relations for the Belt and Road countries and regions. Consequently, Hong Kong Chu Hai College invited Pidchosa, who was working in Europe then, to teach in its master’s programs.

Pidchosa admitted it was a tough call, considering the geographical remoteness and abrupt shift in lifestyle. This was during the initial stages of the COVID-19 outbreak as infection numbers soared. He had to spend more than two weeks in a designated hotel in Hong Kong to complete his quarantine.

Despite the challenges, accountability drove Pidchosa to take up HKCHC’s offer. “We have put a lot of effort into developing this cooperation, such as setting up new courses,” he recalled.

Initially, he agreed to a one- or two-year trial period for him to assess how things would work out. But with the HKSAR government gradually lifting social-distancing rules, “life has become easier, and I can invite my friends and relatives to Hong Kong. Hong Kong people are quite friendly, and the academic circle welcomes personal opinions and various perspectives,” said Pidchosa, adding he will stay in the city for a longer time.

Five Hong Kong tertiary educational institutions — the University of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, City University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Polytechnic University — made it to be among the world’s top 100 universities in the 2022 QS World University Rankings.

Contact the writer at tianyuanzhang@chinadailyhk.com