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Hong Kong's role in China's 13th five-year plan is open to interpretation

What does Beijing mean when it talks about 'enhancing' the city's role in economic development?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 November, 2015, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2016, 12:58pm

Two weeks ago, journalism students asked me a question: how come a Xinhua report on the just-ended Fifth Plenum of the Communist Party, which passed the outline of the 13th five-year plan, made no mention of "one country, two systems" nor "Hong Kong people administrating Hong Kong"? Was this omission a bigger story, given certain media played up this aspect?

Hongkongers are getting more and more sensitive about Beijing's rhetoric on the city. But in this case, I suggested the students wait to see more details of Hong Kong's role when the full text was released.

When the outline was finally published in its entirety last Tuesday, the two concepts missing from the Xinhua report were there. But the text stressed they should be implemented in a "comprehensive and accurate" way. This may or may not put at ease the minds of those worried by the omissions, but a further look at the plan reveals something else Hong Kong must reflect on, if not worry about.

READ MORE: Beijing promises Hong Kong more help on economic development

Beijing pledged full support for the city to join its "One Belt, One Road" initiative, enhance its status and function in the nation's economic development and "give full play to Hong Kong's unique advantages" in promoting cooperation between the city, the mainland and Taiwan.

Isn't the city's role in economic development already clearly crafted? Given that the word "enhance" can carry different interpretations, the answer is yes and no.

It is a "yes" because Hong Kong, with its free economy, is expected to continue serving as a bridge connecting China to the outside world; yet it can also be a "no", because the city is no longer the only springboard for the country to go global.

President Xi Jinping is establishing more direct personal relations with leaders around the world with his "leaders' diplomacy" drive, which promotes direct partnership between Chinese enterprises and foreign counterparts. So what is Hong Kong's position?

Then, over the weekend, Xi and Taiwan's president, Ma Ying-jeou, had their historic meeting in Singapore. This set a precedent for future direct contact between top leaders on both sides of the strait. Naturally, when political tension eases, economic cooperation benefits. Again, it remains to be seen what role Hong Kong will have in mainland-Taiwan cooperation.

Optimists take the word "enhance" to mean the city has a lot to offer, such as continuing to provide financial and legal professional services and serving as a "super connector" between China and the world, as Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying advocates. Hong Kong can also help advance the mainland's economic reforms by lending a hand in developing three free-trade zones in the Pearl River Delta: Qianhai in Shenzhen, Hengqin in Zhuhai , and Nansha in Guangzhou.

READ MORE: Beijing pledges support for Hong Kong in 'One Belt, One Road' regional economic development strategy

Pessimists, on the other hand, take the word "enhance" to mean Hong Kong will have no new role, suggesting the city has not done well enough.

This reminds me of a classic quote by former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa that is also subject to interpretation: "When Hong Kong prospers, the country will benefit; when the country prospers, Hong Kong will benefit more."

Tung was right in a general sense, but those looking at it from another perspective believe the more prosperous the mainland is, the less important Hong Kong's role will be, and thus the less it will "benefit".

While this fear is not without reason, it is really a matter of how Hong Kong can make timely adjustments. According to Ba Shusong, a key drafter of the 13th five-year plan, China has entered an L-shaped, rather than V-shaped, development mode, which requires a more comprehensive go-global strategy, and in which overseas investment boosts growth in gross domestic product alongside domestic stimuli.

Hopefully, Ba's analysis will inspire optimists to speed up what should be done while encouraging the pessimists to act positively to strengthen Hong Kong's uniqueness. After all, it is maintaining the indispensible role of the city that helps secure "one country, two systems", not worrying whether the sky will fall by guessing about Beijing's words.

tammy.tam@scmp.com