Development that would benefit locals and mainland visitors
Bernard Chan says new housing with shopping malls may ease the crunch
There was a time when mainland tourists were seen as nothing but good news for Hong Kong's economy. But at some point, the numbers and the impact on residents started to be seen as a burden. A few weeks ago, it became a hot topic in the run-up to the Legislative Council election. Two news stories created confusion, panic and even anger.
The first was a One Country Two Systems Research Institute proposal to develop parts of the New Territories adjoining the border with Shenzhen. Some media reports suggested that Hong Kong would be virtually ceding land to Shenzhen for use mainly by mainlanders. Officials and the institute stressed that it was a proposal, not a policy.
The second story was the announcement that Shenzhen would allow four million of its non-permanent residents to apply for multiple-entry permits for Hong Kong, and other cities would do something similar. This created an uproar. New Territories residents told of shops being stripped of certain products by mainland traders, and shopkeepers putting prices up accordingly. People spoke of the difficulties of getting into rail carriages crammed with the visitors and their baggage. Legco candidates rushed to agree.
The new rules are now back on the drawing board for further consultation between the mainland and Hong Kong sides.
Hong Kong's proximity to the mainland inevitably makes us a favourite place to visit. We offer genuine, safe products, without any sales tax - a recipe for an influx of people wanting to buy high-end goods for themselves and for family and friends. It has also encouraged a whole industry of small-scale traders who cross over every day to load up with household goods to be sold at a profit in Shenzhen.
There is a very real possibility that we will hit the limits of physical capacity if the number of mainland visitors simply continues to rise. And anyway, there are limits to what Hong Kong people can accept in terms of the impact on their quality of life. Retailers and landlords do well, but for others it threatens more disruption to local retail outlets, price rises and significant crowding on the streets and on public transport.
It could be that the current huge influx of mainland tourists is a temporary thing. At some point, for example, Beijing may reduce taxes on luxury goods and mainlanders will have less incentive to shop here. Even if and when this happens, however, mainlanders will still come and will be benefiting the economy by doing so. We need to find ways to accommodate visitor arrivals and provide tourist facilities, in such a way as to provide a welcome to visitors while protecting locals' interests.
I believe there is potential to solve the current problems and benefit everyone. Some parts of the northern New Territories should be kept in their existing natural green state. But other parts could provide badly needed housing for Hong Kong people. They could also accommodate shopping malls and leisure facilities - in a neighbourhood that would be very convenient for mainland tourists - which could create jobs in a part of Hong Kong that really needs them. Those facilities in turn could relieve the pressure created by mainland visitors in places like Causeway Bay, Central and Sheung Shui.
The One Country Two Systems Research Institute's report suggests a visa-on-arrival sort of system (which does not mean automatic entry) for eligible mainland residents for this specific zone. Alternatively, we could carry on with the existing formalities. The key thing is that, alongside more homes for Hong Kong people, we provide mainland visitors with alternatives to their current destinations here.
Rather than "ceding land to Shenzhen", the proposal could in theory create more space for Hong Kong people, and possibly ease some of the pressure resulting from the concentration of shoppers in particular districts. It sounds like an idea that a lot of people voting on Sunday would support.
Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council