Wish you weren’t here: How Hong Kong’s elite preys on Chinese tourists and the city

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 November, 2015, 6:46pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 November, 2015, 6:46pm

Maybe Hong Kong’s lack of an effective “decolonisation” programme is the genuine source of its internal problems, according to remarks made by Chen Zuoer, a former deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and a key negotiator in the run-up to the 1997 handover. However, decolonisation doesn’t start with re-programming the average person, but the city’s business and government establishment. Recent events readily show how their love of the status quo and lack of independent thinking are driving the city into economic stagnation.

It all began with the post-1997 mantra of we must “get close to China”, which turned into an industry and government syndrome. In practice it was an expression of Hong Kong establishment’s mission that has now mutated into a practice and obsession for seeking China’s approval even in economic and commerce areas where it probably isn’t needed.

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Peter Lam Kin-ngok, chairman of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, is part of the property and hotel establishment. He can only think in terms of how many mainland shoppers can be herded through malls and hotels. His recent concern lies in the lack of overnight visitors staying in Hong Kong.

In the first nine months of this year, a total of 44.4 million tourists visited Hong Kong, down by 0.5 per cent year on year; about 78 per cent came from mainland China. Hong Kong has to suffer 70 million visitors a year even though the city infrastructure is for 6.5 million people. We are no longer an international tourism town, but a mainland parallel trader’s or budget traveller’s paradise.

“Tourists from outside southern China stay in Hong Kong longer, have bigger purchasing power and are the guests that Hong Kong seeks to attract,” Lam said. We should attract more such high-quality tourists to Hong Kong, such as [by asking Beijing to] allow those with electronic passports to apply for visa on the internet.”

Asking mainland authorities to bend visa controls in Hong Kong’s favour has been a familiar refrain. But this strategy only consists of requesting concessions rather than innovation or long-term thinking to shape Hong Kong’s tourism industry.

There’s nothing wrong with admitting that Hong Kong’s tourism strategy is completely dependent on Chinese tourists. Unlike Singapore, there is no incentive for Hong Kong to develop any concept, landmarks and activities for international tourists. However, such an unhealthy dependency prevents Hong Kong’s tourism industry from generating new ideas.

READ MORE: In wake of mainland visitor’s death, Hong Kong must set up a statutory body to oversee tourism sector

Finding an environmentally and commercially sustainable tourism policy is far from the minds of tourism officials. The main beneficiaries of this short term co-dependency are retail landlords and hoteliers who herd mainland tourists around like cattle. It’s no surprise that a tourism-related death could only happen Hong Kong where strong-arm tactics are employed to coerce sales.

High-quality mainland tourists are increasingly travelling abroad. They are finding in Europe, Canada and the US cavernous designer discount warehouse outlets that are cheaper to shop in than Hong Kong’s overpriced, rent-inflated luxury stores. They are discovering culture that hasn’t been buried by a shopping mall.

Our city’s high-tech aspirations are being held hostage by an inability to assume a unique path. The first act by Nicholas Yang Wei-hsiung, head of Hong Kong’s new Innovation and Technology Bureau, was to lead a 50-strong delegation to mainland China.

One wonders why so many people were required to meet and dine with mainland officials just to introduce the government’s plans. There is no need for deferential pretences of interaction and cooperation. China’s relative competitive advantages in technology make Hong Kong irrelevant to its goals. So go your own way.

Our leaders seek some sort of psychic approval. Rather than consult with people in Hong Kong’s tech and startup community, Tang meets mainland bureaucrats who are the antithesis of innovation.

The world can see how China is ambitiously forging into unknown economic and political territory with new regulations in so many areas all aimed at internationalising the yuan. Compare that to Hong Kong’s bureaucrats who cower in timid shadows unsure of their futures.

It’s like they have been re-colonised not by China, but by their own post-colonial hangover, which consists of an entire elite feeling the need to please an imaginary colonial master. There is no right and wrong to be found in Beijing – only the consequences of your actions.

Peter Guy is a financial writer and former international banker