Graduating in Hong Kong during a pandemic

What does the future look like when you’re graduating amidst protests and a pandemic?

Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, demands for democracy in Hong Kong have not calmed down. Protests are happening again as quarantine measures are being eased. What does the future look like when you’re graduating amidst protests and a pandemic? By Nat Cheung.

*Names have been changed for anonymity

Pictures of university graduation ceremonies last year show us what was perhaps the last chance for the class of 2019 to express their political views on campus. Graduates brought in placards, banners, and wore masks while dressed in their graduation gowns. Long before the age of corona, face masks became a symbol of the movement as they protected demonstrators from tear gas and their identities from being revealed.

For this new generation of jobseekers, the possibility of being flagged as an activist by future employers in background checks, or worse, being arrested by the police because they failed to mask their identities in action, is a real concern. Around 40% of those arrested in the protests since June 2019 are students.

“There are also rumours that Chinese companies, and even Hong Kong corporations consciously avoid Hong Kong recent graduates as they wish to avoid employing people with strong political views”, says Luke*, a 23 year-old law graduate, “yet this is hearsay at most.”

Tara*, an economics student aiming to become an investment banker, echoes his worries: “Firms would rather hire Mainland Chinese students these days. They assume all Hong Kong students have an agenda.”

Last month, the Hong Kong Police Force advertised job vacancies on careers websites under foreign universities in the UK, US, Canada, and Australia. While most of them have been taken down shortly after student societies sent in complaints, this says something about the identity politics behind the pro-police faction.

In Hong Kong, policemen are sometimes colloquially called ‘Yi Jin Boys’, based on the stereotype that were rejected by universities, and had to enrol in programmes like Project Yi Jin to get other qualifications before joining the force. This year, the number of new recruits dropped by 40%. The fact that they are now shifting focus onto middle-class, foreign-educated students who arguably have access to more job opportunities internationally may suggest that the police are betting big on their political allegiances.

Interestingly, westernised students are not more likely to support democracy. Democracy means more or less the end of Chinese investment in Hong Kong. Without digging too deep into social delineations, their international education and exposure to the West are indicative of their wealth, and that is almost always tied to business with China. By contrast, this is a grassroots, Cantonese-driven movement that students who tend to converse in English, who are only in town for holidays, who have other options because their education has opened them up to the world, have trouble sympathising with.

But it is not just Chinese companies who are pulling out of Hong Kong. Luke says, “Foreign companies and firms may lose confidence in Hong Kong’s judicial independence, freedom of trade and individual liberties. As a graduate, your career prospects will definitely face significant hurdles and challenges. The future for Hong Kong and its people is most certainly depressing.”

The pressures fresh graduates face in the job market are nothing new. Last May, a study by the think tank New Century Forum found that in Hong Kong, they now earn about 9.6% less in their first job than graduates 25 years ago, and more are settling for low-paid, unskilled jobs.

Coronavirus is evidently another obstacle as jobs and internships are being postponed or even cancelled around the world, though in Hong Kong this is less of a problem as the virus is being contained steadily. Plenty of young people struggling to find work are joining the gig economy for the time being, by tutoring kids online and becoming Deliveroo riders for example.

Political and economic anxieties still stand for fresh graduates looking for full-time work, but some feel that the camaraderie is stronger than ever. Sarah*, 22, graduated from The Chinese University of Hong Kong last year. Her school has been the site of many violent clashes between the police and students, and is known to be yellow-leaning (i.e. pro-democracy), to the point of earning the nickname ‘bou daai’ (meaning ‘University of Violence’) from critics.

She tells me, “The class was sort of polarised, but the majority of us, being “yellow”, were really in it together.” Luke agrees: “I believe the division has united the majority of the students due to their collateral pursuit of political ideals, the Five Demands.”

Granted, he says, “Many lived in their bubbles and wished not to engage in debates”. With the corporate filtering-out of activists in the next stage of their lives, these bubbles will continue to fuel class warfare and divide HK.