After shutting the door to players from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan since January 1st, 2016, the Chinese FA is about to revise their policies again. The new regulation would allow non-naturalized players – that have been registered with the football associations in Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan – to join either Chinese Super League or China League One as local players. However, the rule is restricted to just one player per team. Compared to the professional clubs in Hong Kong, Chinese teams have usually higher salaries, better facilities, more matches and a higher intensity, making this a golden opportunity for local talents.
On the same day, the Chinese FA also announced the change of its U23 and foreigner quota, indicating that the number of Chinese U23 players must match the number of foreigners on the pitch at any time of the game. However, it is believed that the players from Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan could not be counted as such U23 players, as they must be eligible to represent the Chinese national team as part of a large-scale youth development plan. In the CSL, four foreigners can be registered, while a maximum of three can be in the match squad (or starting eleven). In China League One the quota is one player less (three registered; two in the match squad/starting eleven). That means despite this rule change, the possibility for Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan players will be very limited at best, as only four spots would be available in each starting eleven. (The goalkeeper can also not be from Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Macau). One of the 16 teams in China League One are therefore a more likely destination for local players.
When the regulation was last changed at the end of 2015, a batch of naturalized players, including Festus Baise, Jean-Jacques Kilama, Itaparica, Paulinho, Jack Sealy, Yaki Yen from Taiwan (along with Hong Kong’s Au Yeung Yiu-Chung), managed to put pen to papers by the deadline. Without any doubt, the most successful out of all the above was Festus Baise at Guizhou, who managed to lead the team to promotion to the CSL in his first season and became club captain ever since. However, the new regulation would prevent naturalized players like him to head north, but fortunately it is believed that those who already have had a contract in China could extend them. This means that Festus Baise and Godfred Karikari, who was previously with Qingdao Huanghai and Beijing Baxy (leiter Beikong), have some hope to prolong their spell in the Mainland.
As of last season, there were several teams who particularly favoured players from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and have signed more than one of them, e.g. Festus Baise and Au Yeung Yiu-Chung at Guizhou Zhicheng, Yaki Yen and Jack Sealy at Changchun Yatai, as well as Chen Haowei and Wen Chihhao at Beijing Beikong. But it remains uncertain whether these teams would have to offload one of their contracted players to meet the new regulation. Players and agents would also have to persuade other clubs which have never used players from Hong Kong or Taiwan before.
It seems that Hong Kong football has also earned more exposure in China since a satellite team of R&F has been participating in the local Premier League. Players such as Tsang Kin-fong and Tommy Chuck Yiu-kwok have reportedly impressed Chinese coaches with their performances and might already be on their radar. The success of former R&F U23 player Min Junlin, who made the jump to Guizhou Zhicheng after six months in Hong Kong, also shed some light on the underestimated qualities of the Hong Kong Premier League.
With this opportunity given to locally born players in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan once again, the Taiwanese have been flying their flags higher than their Hong Kong counterparts. As Chen Po-liang and Chen Hao-wei entering their seventh and Wen Chih-hao his sixth full season in China, all have cemented their places as regulars at their respective clubs. The last successful cases of locally born Hong Kong players in China would date back to Chan Siu-Ki and Leung Chun-Pong in the 2012-2013 season.
Earning a contract would be the first barrier, but to adapt to the new environment and to fight for a place would be the ultimate challenge that a lot of players would wish for. Hong Kong National Team regulars Tan Chun-lok and Wong Wai, who both have impressed in the recent Asian Cup qualifiers, would probably lead the list of local players seeking for a contract across the border.
With the annual two-legged Guangdong-Hong Kong Cup kicking off in early January 2018, some of the other youngsters from Hong Kong might even have more reason to impress in the games.
RULE CHANGE OVERVIEW
Before 2016: Players from Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan could be registered as “local players” in the CFA league system (except for the goalkeeping position)
2016-2017: Players from Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan had to be registered as foreign players, except they held a valid contract. Therefore, several Hong Kong players signed contracts with Chinese teams before the deadline, especially naturalized ones: Festus Baise (Guizhou Zhicheng), Jean-Jacques Kilama (Tianjin Quanjian), Jack Sealy (Changchung Yatai), Itaparica (Xinjiang Tianshan), Paulinho (Shenzhen FC), Au Yeung Yiu-chung (Guizhou Zhicheng). In addition, Godfred Karikari moved from Beijing Baxy to Qingdao Huanghai and Lee Chi-ho had a short spell with Meizhou Hakka in China’s League One.
After 2017: Each team in the Chinese Super League and China League One may register one player from Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan as a “local player”. This player might not be used to fulfill the requirement of fielding a specific number of Chinese U23 players. Currently it is assumed that the CFA will not allow naturalized players from Hong Kong (who hold a HKSAR passport and can represent Hong Kong internationally, but were born elsewhere) to utilize this new regulation. However, it might still apply to players who previously held a contract in China (e.g. Festus Baise, Godfred Karikari), or who have only been registered with the Hong Kong FA throughout their career (e.g. Jaimes McKee, Jack Sealy, Andy Russell). It is unlikely that the rule would apply to players such as Sandro, Alex Akande, Dani Cancela, Nando Recio, or Jordi Tarres.
Despite many news reports, the CFA has not yet officially confirmed the rules.