Mainland investment opportunities still exist for Hong Kong - if you look hard enough

John Chan is inspired by stories of Hongkongers seizing investment openings across the border, but with the city turning inward, mainland businesses are shifting their focus

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 July, 2015, 2:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 03 July, 2015, 2:14pm

Ningxia choy-sum is well known to housewives in Hong Kong, but a recent visit to the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region revealed something that few of us notice. A friend in Yinchuan city took me to visit Yongning county, a remote area to the south that, with an area close to that of Hong Kong's, is quickly turning into an important base for wine production in China.

The story began in 2007 when the local government proposed to start planting white poplars, in the semi-desert areas along the eastern foothills of the Helan Mountains, for making paper. Extensive surveys revealed that the soil, climate and even latitude of the Gobi semi-desert areas are similar to those of the Bordeaux region in France - except that there is less rain.

The results caused the government to change its mind, and instead of planting white poplar trees, officials invited in vine planters and wine producers, turning the semi-desert area into a region of vineyards and wineries. Qian Xiaoke, Communist Party secretary of the county, said they plan to turn the region into an important wine production base.

Since 2007, 23 wineries have sprung up in the county; almost all employ experts from France as advisers to ensure the quality of both the red and white wines produced.

In one of the three wineries I visited, I met Chen Deqi, the Hong Kong-based proprietor of a 40,000-hectare "organic ecological grape industrial park" in the region. He saw and seized the opportunity when the local government was planning to turn the region into a wine-producing area, and leased the land. He now plans to turn it into more than 100 wineries, which will be sold to wine lovers and interested investors. More than 20,000 hectares of his land have already been planted.

It is a spectacular development for a remote Gobi Desert county with a population of about 200,000, and soon wine-loving Chinese billionaires will no longer need to go to France or Italy to buy wineries.

Almost all the wineries in Yongning county employ experts from France as advisers to ensure the quality of both the red and white wines produced.

While Ningxia wines are relatively new, the Yinchuan choy-sum on sale in most local markets is well-known to many Hongkongers. They come from Yongning county, on the Loess (or Huangtu) Plateau, where the land is so fertile that no chemical fertiliser is required. This is another Hongkonger's success story: he also leased vast tracts of land from the government to plant crops, and now ships tonnes of choy-sum daily in refrigerated train carriages to Hong Kong.

It was inspirational to learn of these shining examples of enterprise in this remote and sparsely populated region. For those willing to venture into the mainland, there are plenty of opportunities.

With Hong Kong's current inward looking localist trend, I am not surprised that few people, especially the young, are aware of the rapid advancements in remote parts of China like Ningxia. What I had failed to notice is that, unlike in the past when almost every week there were trade and investment promotion activities in Hong Kong, hosted by different provinces and/or cities from the mainland, recently there have been very few such events. I asked the local government officials in Yongning whether they had gone to Hong Kong to promote their new investment opportunities such as wineries and fertiliser-free plantation, or had plans to do so.

Their reply, echoed by the local business operators: no. They have shifted their emphasis in the other direction - the Silk Road Economic Belt countries, in line with the government's policy and development strategy.

This is another example to illustrate Hong Kong's failure to keep up with national economic policy and development strategy, letting opportunities slip through our fingers. We have been too complacent for too long and have failed to notice that Hong Kong is no longer the prime choice of many local governments on the mainland for a trading partner or as a source of foreign investment. With the opportunity for political reform missed, surely here is another area where Hong Kong needs to catch up.

John Chan is a practising solicitor and a founding member of the Democratic Party