Hong Kong finance students “frightened” of career reprisals if they join protests

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Some finance and business students at Hong Kong universities continue to support the campus-led protests which have swept across the city over the last five months. But students who want to work in banking fear that taking part in rallies or even speaking out on social media could hamper their chances of landing a job after graduating.

“Most students I know support the protests,” says Jax Heung (not his real name), who’s graduating next year from CUHK with a degree in finance and banking. “Most of us in this movement think we’re just fighting for very basic human rights,” he adds.

Ryker Mou (also a pseudonym) from The University of Hong Kong admits that finance majors like him typically “value money above everything” and mostly spend their time at university plotting their way into well-paid graduate jobs. But the pro-democracy movement has taught some of them that there are “things more important than money”, he adds.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about Hong Kong’s pro-democracy campaign. Karmala Gwok, who’s studying finance and economics at HKUST, says a sizeable minority of her second-year cohort are either “apathetic” towards the movement or oppose it. “I personally haven’t taken part in any protest,” says Finnegan Tow, adding that he’s more focused on completing his BBA from Hong Kong Baptist University. “And I’m not even a supporter,” says Tow, who like all eight students we spoke with asked us not to use his real name.

Finance undergraduates, whether they are for or against the protests, are also wary about being too vocal on social media. Cora Sheung, who’s studying business and finance at HKUST, says students with ambitions in the finance sector are “more cautious” about expressing themselves online than their counterparts doing humanities degrees are, because they are typically more career-driven. She and her classmates tend to make their social posts about the protests only available to close friends. Similarly, Henrik Zang from HKU says his fellow finance students are slightly “less proactive” in offering public support to the protestors than those whose study is more directly related to the pro-democracy movement – such as politics and communication students.

Jaliyah Stokes, an undergraduate from Europe enrolled on HKU’s BBA programme, says international students are reluctant to speak openly about the democracy movement because “many of them have been bullied by other students on social media” for doing so in the past.

Although many finance students may not want to single themselves out on social media, some are still joining the large groups of protesters who continue to rally on streets and campuses across Hong Kong. “This shows the risks they’re willing to bear to fight for democracy,” says Sheung from HKUST.

While small numbers of finance students were likely involved in the Hong Kong PolyU siege, Mou believes that finance majors tend to participate in the more “peaceful-style” protests rather than those involving so-called ‘fire magicians’ throwing home-made petrol bombs at police. But despite only taking part in comparatively tame demonstrations himself, Mou is still “very frightened” of being arrested, because of the violence he thinks he might face and because of the potentially detrimental effect on his career.

Others share his concerns. “Students certainly don’t want their future colleagues to recognise them during a job interview,” says Tobias Kiu, a second-year finance and accounting major at CUHK. “That’s one of the reasons why protestors wear masks and the same black clothes. Politics is sensitive in the workplace in Hong Kong,” adds aspiring banker Kiu, who is put off protesting himself for career-related reasons.

Being identified as a supporter of the protest movement is particularly perilous for students applying for internships or graduate jobs at Chinese banks, which are hiring heavily in Hong Kong. There’s a widespread belief among local finance students that Chinese banks will not hire them if arrests are flagged up during background checks, says HKUST student Gwok. “It’s believed that students who oppose the Chinese government will be banned from these firms,” she adds.

Mou from HKU says he pretended to be sick one day during his recent internship at a mainland bank, so he could attend one of the big summer demonstrations. “My mentor there was a Hongkonger and he reminded me to be very careful and not to act in an obvious way,” says Mou. “The Chinese market provides the majority of deals for bankers and the majority of job opportunities for Hong Kong students, so we local finance students can’t always speak our minds,” he adds.

Gwok thinks foreign banks, in their quest to expand in the lucrative mainland market, will also “try to avoid” hiring Hong Kong students who’ve been arrested or who’ve “actively expressed” anti-China comments on social media. “Western banks are afraid of being blacklisted from the China market,” she adds.

Image credit: LewisTsePuiLung

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