Qianhai economic zone chief says it won't compete with Hong Kong

The chief of the new economic zone says it won't compete with neighbour Hong Kong in playing an experimental role for a freer flow of the yuan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 September, 2013, 8:07am

The 15-square-kilometre site of the Qianhai special economic zone looks more like a construction site than a booming financial centre. But the top official in charge of the development says it will not only play a key role in liberalising the yuan but also help Hong Kong keep its status as a world-leading financial centre - a status many fear is threatened by Shanghai's ambitious rise.

Zhang Bei, the top official in charge of developing Qianhai says the small but important zone will help, rather than compete with its near neighbour, Hong Kong.

"We will not compete with Hong Kong in any areas where Hong Kong has already done a great job," says Zhang, director general of the Authority of Qianhai Shenzhen-Hong Kong Modern Service Industry Co-operation Zone.

"Hong Kong is already China's largest offshore yuan trading centre. Our job is to help to make Hong Kong even more important and make the offshore yuan business even bigger," Zhang said in his first interview since he was appointed two months ago.

Qianhai - an hour's drive from Hong Kong - was named 12 months ago as a test bed for experiments for a freer flow of yuan and greater convertibility of foreign exchange for investment purposes.

The clamour for a freer yuan is growing louder among savers, investors, companies and traders alike.

Swelling offshore deposits of the tightly-managed currency are now worth around 700 billion yuan (HK$880 billion). Foreign firms, meanwhile, are accumulating huge amounts of yuan thanks to Beijing's active promotion of the currency's use in settling cross-border trade.

Beijing wants to increase the international use of the yuan to reflect China's growing status as the world's most important trading economy and reduce the dominant influence of the US dollar in the global financial system.

The central government needs yuan to accumulate offshore to help do that, along with a controllable mechanism to bring the currency back onshore for investment purposes.

Doing so lowers the cost of capital for Chinese firms while reducing inflationary pressure on the mainland's financial system which is fuelled by capital controls, requiring the central bank to print bonds to absorb hundreds of billions of dollars worth of foreign currency inflows every year.

Making the currency completely convertible, however - which investors expect to happen by 2015 or 2020 at the latest - gives Beijing policymakers goosebumps.

The risk is that with capital controls gone, a storm of volatility in the markets would see money simply flee the mainland.

Meanwhile the billions of yuan that illicitly seep out of the country every year, as the country's rich stash their wealth abroad, could turn into a torrent if capital controls are abandoned.

Qianhai is the valve through which Beijing will regulate these capital flows to improve its understanding of exactly how much demand there is for cash to be taken out of the country and how much demand there is to bring money in.

Last December, Xi Jinping made a surprise visit to the zone in his first official domestic trip after being named Communist Party chief. His trip boosted foreign investors' confidence in the Qianhai project.

But doubts over Qianhai's role and future quickly surfaced in Hong Kong. Some financial industry players consider it the latest threat to Hong Kong's role as a leading financial centre, while some local politicians see it as part of Beijing's bigger plan to further integrate Hong Kong into the Pearl River Delta area - currently led by Shenzhen - and reduce the importance of the "one country, two systems" that Hong Kong has been governed under since the 1997 handover.

Hong Kong is already facing growing competition from Shanghai, which the central government wants to build into "one of the world's three largest financial centres", on a par with New York and London by 2020. Xi's support for making Qianhai the main proving ground for Beijing's experiment in liberalising its interest and foreign exchange rates naturally makes some Hongkongers even more concerned about their city's future role.

Zhang is keen to ease those concerns. "We clearly understand what our position is. Qianhai's position won't be important without Hong Kong's involvement and support," he said.

He notes that the economic and non-economic challenges remain for Qianhai, despite the huge policy support from the central government. One major non-economic challenge, he says, is to build mutual trust with the Hong Kong government and business community.

"Maybe it is because we do a lot, but we don't usually speak too much," he said.

The appointment of Zhang - who worked as a personal secretary for several top leaders in Beijing before he was assigned to Shenzhen - comes at a time when the special economic zone is looking to more aggressively auction off land to attract Hong Kong and overseas investors.

On Tuesday, Qianhai revealed detailed rules for the first time to allow developers to bid for three public sites. Dozens of high-end office buildings and support facilities will be built over the next few years in Qianhai, which also means a strong demand for bank loans.

Cross-border yuan lending is a key part of the zone's ambition to become possibly the first location on the mainland where yuan will be fully convertible on a test-run basis over the next few years. By the end of last month, Qianhai had recorded cross-border yuan loans worth a total of 5.25 billion yuan.

In January, 15 Hong Kong and international banks were allowed to offer a combined 2 billion yuan of loans for borrowers whose companies were registered in Qianhai. Zhang said the government would not interfere with how the loans were used - as long as borrowers didn't pour the money into stock markets or use the money for arbitrage purposes, taking advantage of the interest rate gap between the mainland and Hong Kong, where corporates enjoy much lower lending rates.

"One thing I can promise is that there is no quota limit on the cross-border yuan lending business. The more companies come to Qianhai for business, the more loans banks will provide, and the size of the cross-border yuan lending business will also grow bigger and bigger," Zhang said.

So far, many of the buildings in Qianhai have been funded by the government. But as the local Qianhai government launches its first auction of public land, Zhang says, the need for cross-border yuan lending will "very rapidly increase" to tens of billions of yuan annually over the next two to three years as Qianhai enters a new expansion period and high-rise buildings are constructed.

Analysts say yuan deposits in Hong Kong are likely to hit more than 1 trillion yuan by the end of this year.

"Compared with the size of yuan deposits in Hong Kong, the demand for cross-border yuan lending in Qianhai is still relatively small, but as long as Qianhai and Hong Kong work together closely to develop the business we can grow the loan business bigger," Zhang said.

"We can also effectively solve some problems for Hong Kong, for example, lack of usages and sluggish distribution channels of yuan capital, so the foundation of Hong Kong as the leading yuan offshore centre can be strengthened further."

He compares the relations between Hong Kong and Qianhai to the interplay between the City of London - the British capital's traditional financial heartland - and Canary Wharf, the new development of skyscrapers in the East London docklands where global banks, including Citigroup and HSBC, set up their British bases.

"When those big banks got their new offices in Canary Wharf, they also retained their presence in the City of London, where business grew more active. I think Qianhai can serve the same role for Hong Kong as Canary Wharf did for the old London financial district," he said.

To some extent, Zhang agrees that the pace of Beijing's currency liberalisation will depend on how smoothly and quickly Qianhai can make the pioneering moves. Despite a recent growth in the outflow of money from the mainland and the region, partly thanks to an economic recovery in the United States, Zhang said he would not worry too much about foreign interests in Qianhai.

"China's economy is still growing and it is hopeful of becoming the world's largest economic body over the next few decades. So from a long-term perspective, we believe foreign investors will have to come to China to continue to invest."

For a related story about Qianhai's special tax rate for Hong Kong and foreign employees, click here.