A say on the bay

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 March, 2011, 12:00am

The recent discussion on the government's 'Action Plan for the Bay Area of the Pearl River Estuary' has stirred up a storm over whether Hong Kong is 'being planned' by mainland authorities to the extent that the city and its people have lost their autonomy. But, as even some critics of the plan have pointed out, the controversy has been wrongly cast as a battle between integration and autonomy. Integration with the mainland is not a question of 'whether', but 'how'.

Politically, the 'one country, two systems' framework enables Hong Kong to thrive on its own institutions including the rule of law inherited from the British period, with a high degree of autonomy in administration.

However, constitutionally, Hong Kong as a special administrative region is part of the national fabric, with the mainland grounded in different political and social institutions. The 'two systems' construct is a historical compromise with tensions, but it should be viewed with respect and creativity, rather than as a straitjacket and justification for alienation.

The reality of Hong Kong in the new 21st century is that its attractiveness lies in both its mainland connectivity and its international links. On one hand, Hong Kong without its global face is of limited use to China -it needs to display the merits of its difference as part of the process to enrich the nation's diversity. On the other hand, a Hong Kong marginalised by the mainland, whether by design or default, does not appeal to the international community. Hong Kong must remain a vibrant gateway to a China on the rise.

An inward-looking planning paradigm is self-defeating. Of course, regionalisation or globalisation has brought about both opportunities and threats. Regional co-operation helps remove local barriers, and promotes interdependence and complementarities. However, it also induces the rise of multiple identities that are sometimes contradictory and may cause the clash of values, norms and preferences, especially if different jurisdictions at varying stages of development are involved.

Hong Kong's economic future lies in the growth and progress of China, as well as in Asia, as economic dynamism shifts from the West to the East. Whether in terms of the flow of people, capital, goods or information, Hong Kong has to expand its interface and integration with the mainland, especially southern China.

Hong Kong's distinctiveness and identity are indeed crucial to its vitality and core values under 'one country'; it must explore what 'Hongkongness' means in the evolving national and global scenes.

If Hong Kong is to play the role of a metropolitan centre for China, and the wider Asia, it cannot afford to shut its door and rest on past success. It has to actively reach out. A Hong Kong disconnected from the national transport grid is to invite marginalisation. Similarly, if Hong Kong does not pick up its pace in international air transport and trade, its links to the outside world will be diluted. A city economy cannot afford the luxury of not reaching out and drawing outsiders in.

Issues of sustainable development and quality of life -air, water, energy and infrastructure- cannot be fully pursued if Hong Kong just acts on its own, with no regard to, and support and co-operation from, our neighbouring cities and provinces. Our transport, environmental and urban development plans should be integrated with the Pearl River Delta, one way or the other. If we do nothing, or resist talking to our neighbours, the end result will indeed be that Hong Kong has been 'planned' because the actions taken by others will have shaped and constrained our options and possibilities.

As our counterparts in Guangdong and Shenzhen heatedly debate what lies ahead for them, we have everything to lose if we just stay put. To surrender our autonomy to mainland planners is of course not acceptable; yet, to do nothing and not be involved in the delta planning process would be no better than leaving our city's future prospects in the hands of our neighbours.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think tank