Qianhai and Hong Kong: like Canary Wharf and the City of London?
Development zone wants to be friends with Hong Kong, not a rival. Can neighbours get along or are they coming at it from different premises?
First, Shanghai. And now, Qianhai! Which other cities are waiting to join the competition with Hong Kong?
Last week, I went to Qianhai, the small but important development zone in Shenzhen, for an interview with Zhang Bei, Qianhai's top boss.
Right after we sat down, Zhang, who used to be a personal secretary to former vice-premier Wu Yi, began to try to ease my worries about how Qianhai would challenge Hong Kong's role as a leading financial centre.
"The first thing I want to do is to set aside those concerns and strengthen our mutual trust with the Hong Kong government and the business community in Hong Kong. We will not compete with Hong Kong in any areas where Hong Kong has already done a great job. Instead, we want to help," he said.
Zhang said he was aware of the competition between Shanghai and Hong Kong, arising from Shanghai's stated ambition to become one of the world's three top financial centre cities, on a par with New York and London, by 2020.
There has been intensive news coverage of Qianhai by mainland media in the past few months, in particular after Xi Jinping's surprise visit late last year, after he was named party chief. But in Hong Kong and the rest of the world, reaction to Qianhai's development has remained only so-so.
Some Hong Kong bankers and legislators doubt that Qianhai will be integrated into the bigger and politically sensitive Hong Kong-Shenzhen Pearl River Delta area. In many cases, mutual trust has a long way to go.
For any kind of business, mutual trust is the essential prerequisite you must have with your partner. For Qianhai and Hong Kong, mutual trust is now weak, and Zhang is right to make working on it a priority.
Zhang said the future relationship between Qianhai and Hong Kong could be something like that between the City of London, the British capital's traditional financial heartland, and Canary Wharf, the development of skyscrapers in the East London docklands where global banks, including Citigroup and HSBC, set up their British bases.
In Zhang's view, Qianhai can at least help some foreign banks that have already located their regional headquarters in Hong Kong to set up their back-office and trading operations in Qianhai, where the cost of land and office rentals is much lower than in Hong Kong.
Ideally, he argues, the more yuan-related activities you have in Qianhai, the more people and resources you will also get in Hong Kong, where foreign banks can retain their regional bases, to support their onshore operations on the mainland.
I liked the way Zhang linked Hong Kong and Qianhai to the City of London and Canary Wharf. But Qianhai and Hong Kong are two very different cities with very different legal systems and social ideologies.
When I finished my interview and got on a bus back to Hong Kong, right after the bus went across a bridge near the border, I began to receive notifications on Facebook and Twitter - both are banned on the mainland - and my Google e-mail worked much more smoothly.
At that moment, I heard a voice in my mind: "You see? It's just different."
George Chen is the Post's financial services editor. Mr. Shangkong appears every Monday in the print version of the SCMP. Like it? Visit facebook.com/mrshangkong