The many benefits of mainland Chinese visitors

Stephen Vines says officials lack backbone to deal with mainland relations

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 February, 2014, 12:07pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 February, 2014, 1:36am

Is Hong Kong sinking under the pressure of visitors from the mainland? Clearly, many people think it is and we have now been presented with another proposal from self-promoting politicians seeking to discourage visitors by imposing an arrivals tax.

The stupidity of this proposal is barely worth discussing, but it does reflect a growing concern over the pressure of mainland visitors that emanates from real fears that Hong Kong will be overwhelmed in a way that destroys its distinctive identity.

There should be a rational debate on these matters, but it shows no sign of emerging. Instead, we have the usual rabble of opportunistic politicians trying to enhance their popularity by grovelling in the gutter of anti-outsider sentiment. On the other hand, there is an administration and the serried ranks of pro-Beijing supporters who believe in saying yes to anything that emerges from across the border.

In between are the vast mass of Hong Kong people who genuinely wonder whether the city can cope with this visitor influx, who are periodically alarmed by shortages of goods caused by the visitors, and fear that the day will come when they become strangers in their own city.

Meanwhile, these visitors provide employment and business opportunities for a great many local people. Moreover, the influx can be seen as a compliment to Hong Kong as it offers mainlanders a glimpse of a sophisticated cosmopolitan lifestyle and level of freedom not seen anywhere else in China.

Instead of looking at the positives, political opportunists are exploiting people's fears of incomers and their scaremongering is given credence by the government's failure to address these fears.

If people had more confidence in the government and the administration was prepared to show the smallest degree of backbone in handling relations with the mainland, a lot of the heat would be taken out of this debate. To begin a more constructive debate, officials need to demonstrate commitment to preserving Hong Kong's identity. Indeed, it needs to be celebrated.

Secondly, concrete measures are required to improve the infrastructure that serves not only visitors but also residents who cross the border, who use the transport system and who populate the crowded areas where visitors tend to congregate.

Instead, we have officials blithely issuing forecasts of vastly expanded visitor arrivals from the mainland. Given the government's abysmal track record for forecasting more or less anything, these predictions should be treated with contempt, not least because they fail to appreciate that, as travel restrictions are eased for Chinese citizens, their enthusiasm for venturing further afield will definitely have an impact on the desire to visit Hong Kong.

I was born in London, a city that has experienced various versions of this debate. Despite the prophecies of doom, London has emerged as one of the world's truly cosmopolitan cities, and done so to the considerable benefit of native Londoners.

At one stage, we were told that the influx of immigrants from the subcontinent would ignite all sorts of tensions, there were even dire warnings of an influx from Hong Kong in the 1980s, and then we were told that all these people visiting Britain's capital city would make life impossible for residents.

The reality is that the hard-working immigrants brought dynamism and new life to the economy, that the visitors made London an infinitely more interesting city. Most people have come to realise that the warnings of doom were about as wrong as they could be.

Hong Kong is far from this realisation but, if properly managed, the visitor influx can be of immense benefit.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur