How Hong Kong can accommodate growing number of mainland visitors
Cheah Cheng Hye says it's possible for Hong Kong to successfully accommodate the growing number of mainland visitors, with some imaginative thinking and a return of its 'can-do' spirit
The Hong Kong economy relies heavily on spending by visitors from the Chinese mainland - yet a growing minority of Hong Kong residents don't want them around, at least not in such large numbers.
We need to find a way out of this, for not only is there a lot of money at stake but an even larger issue of whether Hong Kong can survive the transition from British colony to being part of the People's Republic.
At first, it is tempting to ignore those in Hong Kong protesting against the visitor invasion. After all, what is Hong Kong's role if not to feed China's craving for all sorts of goods and services of foreign origin? We didn't get rich by accident. Hong Kong, which has long nurtured a "can do" spirit, should simply keep smiling and let them come, according to what used to be a clear majority view in Hong Kong.
The trouble is that we now have a new type of Hong Kong, a mature and divided society with an evolving culture of blaming everyone for everything and a growing portion of the population demoralised by rising costs for housing and almost everything else.
"Can do" is becoming "No can do", and it is going to get worse unless we make fundamental social and political changes, a subject beyond the scope of this column. The fact is, a clear consensus no longer exists to support such a large visitor invasion. Here, we are talking about really big numbers: during the first two months of this year alone, Hong Kong (population: 7.2 million) received 7.8 million visitors from the mainland, 17 per cent higher than in the same period last year. For all of last year, we received 41 million mainland visitors, 17 per cent higher than the previous year, according to official Hong Kong figures.
Politics aside, the place is physically too small for this many people. Local residents are upset by falling service standards while everyone is crowding each other out on streets and subways and in shops and restaurants, resulting in frustration all round, not least among the visitors themselves. More and more, there are people who don't, or think they don't, benefit from the invasion.
The extremist fringe of Hong Kong politics has resorted to applying the term "locusts" to placards hoisted against mainland tourists in a 21st century version of Hong Kong racism.
Overcrowding has emerged as part of the fuel for the new Hong Kong of disruptive politics, blame and fear, weakening our foundations. The stress is building to the point where we have to start asking whether Hong Kong may eventually become ungovernable, and whether this might result in a breakdown in the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong, which would bring disaster to us.
So sadly, we have to recognise that we face more risks than benefits from accepting so many cross-border visits. We need a plan - we hope they keep coming, but not on such a scale, until we're really ready. And we can be ready - with some imagination, it is within our capability to make changes to accommodate visitors in numbers even higher than today.
Step one, to be implemented as soon as possible, is to come out with administrative methods to limit the inflow of arrivals - nothing too drastic, but enough to appease somewhat the dissident part of the Hong Kong populace.
The second step is to raise the awareness of the Hong Kong public on the vital importance of the city achieving a smooth transition to Chinese rule. This can be accompanied by efforts to improve Hong Kong's image on the mainland. We have to reverse a growing negative feeling towards Hong Kong among the mainland public, with incidents such as the "locusts" placards coming one after another.
The third step, which offers a practical solution, is to create the land we need to build more shopping malls, logistics centres, milk sales outlets, amusement parks, health care facilities and schools to cater to the immense needs of people from the mainland. Land can be created through imaginative solutions, including the following:
- Joining Macau to lease land on Hengqian Island, an island of 106 square kilometres that forms part of Zhuhai, where the University of Macau has built a huge campus. Here is our chance to make better use of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, opening in 2015, built partly with Hongkongers' money.
- Turning the Lok Ma Chau area into a centre for development.
- Doing a deal with Shenzhen to jointly develop facilities that would conform to Hong Kong standards and, where appropriate, placed under Hong Kong management. It is notable that Shenzhen's new Qianhai special development zone may offer various incentives, including a 15 per cent corporate tax rate. The zone is just 15 minutes by rail to the Hong Kong airport.
- Encouraging activities that can be relocated from Hong Kong to mainland China to do so, thus freeing up land for high-value development within Hong Kong. In particular, Shenzhen and Hong Kong can consider how to co-operate more closely on win-win projects.
These ideas will have to be accompanied by measures to allow selective imports of labour into Hong Kong - always with careful regard for the sensibilities of the local labour force.
If we successfully take up the challenge of accommodating the mainland tourists, we would have made meaningful progress in reversing the ill winds that have blown against Hong Kong in recent years. We would have restored part of the "can do" spirit back to our community.
Cheah Cheng Hye, a fund manager and former journalist, is chairman of Value Partners Group, an asset-management firm listed in Hong Kong