GBA, the people mover: kindred cousins or foreign interlopers

An AI-generated artistic depiction of people mobility within the GBA, emphasizing the seamless integration and movement of people across its 11 cities


The people involved in the integration of industry knowledge and the building of the four focal industries in the GBA will mostly be drawn from the pool of skilled labour currently being utilised and developed in the three regions, two of which are relatively highly globalised. 

The workforce in Hong Kong draws from a globally experienced base thanks to its position as one of the world’s most significant financial and trade centres. While 93% of the skilled working population of professionals, managers, and associate professionals is Hong Kong Chinese, of these strata, 6.35% are not Chinese. Additional, approximately 71% of Hong Kong’s labour force has advanced education, many having received this overseas. Macau’s population, too, has a history of international exposure with over four centuries of permanent Portuguese settlement and trade. Today, we know Macau for its moniker as a World Centre of Tourism and Leisure and a Gastronomy City. 

GBA’s Framework Agreement of 2017 outlines the support to people from Guangdong Province, Hong Kong and Macau involved in the economic and social integration of the GBA. Easier flows of factors of production such as people and goods, capital flows to encourage investment by companies, access to work forces, and ease of mobility for individuals across existing borders are all part of the plan. Also not forgotten in public documents is consideration for the conditions necessary to make living on the mainland more enticing and accessible for Hong Kong and Macau residents: “To strive to develop the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area into a more dynamic economic region, a quality living circle which is an ideal place for living, working and travelling.”  

For people from the two regions with long histories of global integration, international economic, educational and social participation, the “ideal place” would entail a continuing embrace of multiple cultures and an open window to the world. Macau continues to be valued for its potential to leverage on its Portuguese history – seen as a critical asset – to build economic and trade cooperation between Portuguese-speaking countries and China. Macau has also built expertise in gaming, MICE and entertainment for a global audience. Hong Kong, although still very much an international city, has softened in its position as an international trade and financial powerhouse founded on western democratic institutions, whilst integrating Chinese knowhow and social principles. While there has been some exodus of the internationally mobile elite from Hong Kong, the Top Talent Pass Scheme which was instigated to fill the brain drain post-Covid-19 has seen 9 out of 10 applicants hail from mainland China. Applicants are required to have graduated from selected universities in places like the U.S.A., the U.K., Europe, Australia, Singapore, China and South Korea or be in high-earning careers to maintain professional fit with Hong Kong’s international outlook. A variety of reasons for applying to the scheme were offered by mainland Chinese applicants, some who were keen to experience living and working in a more globally open environment, with access to broader educational opportunities for their children, a shorter working week with greater work-life balance, openness to diversity and difference, and broader freedoms of expression, as stated in media reports. 

Such motivations indicate that future movement across these borders for GBA integration will not be limited to policy and economic incentives. The global mobility literature offers insight into what increases the willingness of people to relocate and what keeps them at home. Some move to explore job opportunities or enhance their career. Others move to more economically and politically developed places. Being presented with an opportunity may be enough for some, while others need to know that their lifestyle and quality of life will substantially improve. The excitement of living somewhere new and openness to experience might be outweighed by family care and educational needs of children.  Tax incentives also play a role. The characteristics of our communities in Macau, Hong Kong and the Mainland and the match with professionals’ needs and desires are part and parcel of the success of cross-border activity. 

The mismatch can be greater than expected however: the fact that Macau, Hong Kong and mainland China all share cultural and ethnic commonalities does not mean that social integration in living and work environments will be seamless.  Ethnic and cultural similarity can often obscure difference that is otherwise explicitly apparent when foreigners come together. Misunderstandings and ignorance of social norms can be excused when people look, sound and act differently. My own research revealed, however, significant unanticipated culture shock experienced by ethnic Cantonese professionals who moved to Hong Kong: They looked the part, so were expected to play the part. Constantly monitoring expectations of others and their own assumptions as to how things work were huge burdens that detracted from work performance: different ways of working, different topics upon greeting, expectations of depth of understanding of historical and cultural references, what it means to build a relationship and how that’s achieved, negotiation tactics, and time spent together outside of the immediate work relationship all created unforeseen hurdles that required dedicated time and effort to resolve. 

Other potential hurdles are the petty prejudices and otherness that continue to exist between people from Hong Kong, Macau and the Mainland. They can be heard and felt in day-to-day experience. One Macau student who kept silent about his origins in a Hong Kong university dormitory bore witness to derisive commentary about his hometown. Immigration from the mainland to Hong Kong has at times prompted focus in academic studies on cultural identity. A 2023 Pew Research Center study suggests that people in Hong Kong under the age of 35 and those more highly educated primarily identify as Hong Kongers. Other studies suggest that political discourse, cultural affiliation and market portrayals can all impact upon a sense of who belongs where, apart from more obvious racial and national attributes. 

Participation by competent people and enterprises in the GBA is a necessary part of the success of the vision. What and who grants belonging to the GBA in the initial phases, however, is multi-faceted; one of those factors is the individual’s willingness to act, another is being given license by others to belong. Individuals have agency about whether they feel comfortable to be part of this broad-visioned plan, or seek to maintain homes and lives with their families in their local communities, or contribute their expertise elsewhere. The individual choice relies on a balance between social, cultural, political and economic incentives and disincentives. GBA success will hinge on a fit between communities and people. by Leanda Lee, Contributing Editor, Scholar

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