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Future tech

Hong Kong has been left behind in China’s digital revolution

William Zheng says it’s time to admit the city is now lagging behind the mainland following the digital leap forward across the border. Hong Kong can catch up by seizing opportunities for both business and investment

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 February, 2017, 4:28pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 10:36am

Urban planning and social engineering have given Hongkongers and Singaporeans a modern lifestyle admired by many, including mainland Chinese. But after the great digital leap forward on the mainland over the past decade, this may no longer be the case.

My recent visit to Hangzhou (杭州) was eye-opening. At dinner at a restaurant, my companions and I were shown a QR code instead of a menu. We scanned the code and the system connected us to the restaurant’s WeChat mini app, where all guests could see one another’s order and add or delete items easily. For payment, Alipay or WeChat Pay was preferred to “troublesome” cash.

Hong Kong is falling behind in the race to a cashless society

Over the next few days, my renminbi notes remained untouched in my pocket. Everywhere I went, I used Didi Dache or Uber for transport. Store owners, including those selling roasted sweet potatoes on trishaws, were happy to accept mobile payments, even for amounts below 1 yuan (HK$1.10).

While many Hongkongers use their Octopus cards for payment, chat with friends on WhatsApp and share their lives on Facebook and Twitter, mainland city dwellers are paying their bills through Alipay, talking on WeChat and sharing their lives on Weibo. The mainland’s great firewall has created an interesting digital divide across the Shenzhen River.

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Nevertheless, censorship and tight internet controls have done little to dampen the spirit of start-ups on the mainland. Attend any start-up pitching session in Shenzhen and you will be amazed by the speed of learning, the passion and the ambition of young technopreneurs who dream big. And you will be impressed by the huge risk appetite and deep pockets of Chinese tech investors.

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Projects abound in areas such as e-commerce, online payments, the sharing economy, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Although some industries have fallen victim to the bullet-train speed of the Chinese internet economy, leading to empty malls, the efficiency and convenience brought to Chinese consumers is phenomenal.

Hong Kong, once the most modern city in China, has fallen behind. Many rightly point out that our education system is not promoting creativity, costs are too high for start-ups, and society’s tolerance of failure too low.

Furthermore, the ability to change in scale is a key factor in an internet economy, and many innovators in Hong Kong, who are not familiar with the environment and user habits on the mainland, find it hard to grow. Chinese technopreneurs, meanwhile, can easily replicate their services to over 660 Chinese cities, serving 700 million users.

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Hong Kong could still benefit from the Chinese digital leap forward. Hong Kong merchants should work on WeChat and Weibo more and incorporate them into their marketing and mainland development strategies. If Hong Kong retailers could learn to use Alipay and WeChat Pay to serve mainland tourists, they would have fewer cash management problems.

The city could also learn to invest in the field. The city’s tycoons, who made their wealth in more traditional industries, should review their risk appetite and attend the pitching sessions in Silicon Valley, Shenzhen or Shanghai, listen well, and invest cleverly.

Hongkongers should ask themselves: do we want to admit that the mainland has overtaken us in internet development? And, how do we move out of our comfort zone and integrate into the fastest-growing part of the Chinese economy?

William Zheng is a veteran journalist who has served and led major Singapore and Hong Kong media organisations in his 20-year career