Hong Kong faces challenge in helping mainland China become an internet superpower

It’s not enough to have Wi-fi access everywhere, the city must become more welcoming in terms of both business hardware and social environment

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 April, 2016, 5:04pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 April, 2016, 5:04pm

Love it or hate it, the digital age is here and it’s a challenge for Beijing as the country’s tenacious internet users test the limits of the central government’s tolerance for the free flow of information and opinion.

This poses an important question for Hong Kong as to what it means for the city if it wants to be included in the country’s fast-growing internet economy, which operates under tighter administrative rules than people here are accustomed to.

In that regard, the high-level conference last week on cybersecurity and information technology chaired by President Xi Jinping was not one to miss.

Speaking to senior officials in charge of cyber technology development, top internet engineers, influential academics in media studies and internet titans such as Jack Ma of Alibaba, owner of the South China Morning Post, Xi urged officials at all levels to go online more often to feel the pulse of the people, adding that it was “incredible” the country’s netizen population exceeded 700 million. But at the same time, he also stressed the need to “strengthen cyber defence and deterrence capabilities”.

That is the dilemma for the country: after decades of fast growth, its economy has entered a “new normal”, which is actually a slowdown.

The central government has embraced e-commerce and the internet economy as the major new engine to drive the country’s future development. But the proliferation of internet platforms also means Beijing has to deal with the increasing threat of cyberattacks at home and abroad. It will have to filter and control the influx of information – good, bad or damaging in the wary eyes of the people in power at Zhongnanhai.

Here in Hong Kong, people enjoy a more or less unfettered flow of information, but how to make good use of this particular advantage in the context of the new opportunities presented by the country's internet boom could be a whole new ball game.

For those who go “up north” for a first-hand look, it’s amazing to see online consumption growing to the extent that it’s becoming part of everyday life for so many mainlanders. High-tech start-ups are also flourishing, while big players like Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu have become household names, not just in China but around the world.

At the same time it’s also frustrating that access to Facebook, YouTube, Google and many other popular overseas websites is blocked by mainland authorities, who argue that operators have to play by the rules of the country they operate in.

Hong Kong, however, would do well to seize the opportunities on offer. A recent internet economy summit, the first of its kind held in the city, could be seen as the first step.

One highlight of the summit was the agreement that Hong Kong and some of its mainland counterparts should work together to develop smart cities. But that’s not all that Hong Kong can and should do. Its competitive advantage is something that is in fact highly recognised by senior Beijing officials in charge of cyber issues.

Xu Lin, deputy director of the state’s Cyberspace Administration, who was one of the keynote speakers at the summit, hailed Hong Kong’s “world class infrastructure, young talent and a comprehensive legal framework”as the cornerstones for building the internet economy.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying didn’t miss the chance to promote Hong Kong as an open-minded and welcoming society as he encouraged more mainland and overseas companies to set up research and development centres in the city.

How Hong Kong is to go about achieving this will become clearer down the line, but if that’s what the city wants given its special status under the “one country, two systems” policy, the road is still far too long.

In terms of economic size, Hong Kong is obviously dwarfed by the mainland, but when it comes to access to information, this city is without doubt the freest in the country.

When everyone is now talking about big data, and the government is pushing hard for a technology-driven economy, these concepts extend far beyond the fashionable tech jargon going around.

If it wants to attract talent and nurture prospects for a more science-based economy, Hong Kong must at least be recognised as a real “welcoming” city, in terms of both business hardware and social environment.

Being a “smart city” is not just having free Wi-fi access all over town.