During the past week or so, we have witnessed several seemingly unrelated incidents that, upon reflection, share a common thread - competitiveness.
In late April, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying made a one-day trip to Beijing. He described the visit as being fruitful on several counts.
One was Beijing giving the green light to expand the current preferential treatment - which allows Hong Kong's service industry access to Guangdong - to eight more provinces in the pan-Pearl River Delta area. Another was allowing Hong Kong to be involved in the country's preliminary drafting of the 13th national five-year plan starting from 2016.
A third was Hong Kong being permitted to negotiate a free-trade pact with Asean.
Presumably, these measures would allow Hong Kong to prosper economically.
Yet, while the city had yet to digest the impact of these new measures granted by Beijing, a day later, its top man in charge of Hong Kong affairs, Zhang Dejiang , gave a stern warning to the city, saying that Hong Kong was losing its competitive edge.
The National People's Congress chairman told a group of visiting Hong Kong businessmen-turned-politicians that the city was like a boat sailing against currents, either it must forge ahead or be swept downstream. And whatever other principles one talked about, economic development was the only absolute principle.
The fact that this was Zhang's first meeting with Hong Kong visitors - and the remarks were made during a photo session in which Hong Kong reporters were present - meant something. Zhang, or Beijing, wanted to convey its message to Hongkongers, loud and clear.
What impact Zhang's remarks will have is yet to be seen. But, interestingly enough, this time senior Hong Kong officials were the first to defend the city. Both Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah and Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury Professor Chan Ka-keung argued that Hong Kong's competitiveness was in its own hands, and that other places were facing deep-rooted problems as well.
Zhang did not name what "edge" Hong Kong is losing. But it is understood he was referring to several issues: the ongoing heated debate on universal suffrage; a proposed civil disobedience movement, "Occupy Central"; various conflicts such as the month-long dockers' strike, and the recent controversy over donating HK$100 million to the provincial government in earthquake-hit Sichuan province. All of these must have touched nerves in Beijing.
In another development, an online video clip of a Hong Kong man seen quarrelling with a woman claiming to be from Shanghai inside the MTR went viral last week. It was a scene no longer strange or surprising given the rising tensions between Hong Kong and the mainland. It was unclear what the argument was about, but at the end, the Hong Kong man scolded the woman, saying, "You mainlanders are corrupt!" But she quickly rebutted: "In Hong Kong, you have this corrupt Donald Tsang!" She was apparently referring to the ICAC investigation into the former chief executive in connection with various trips he took and a bargain penthouse he planned to rent across the border.
The man left the train without saying a word. Some local media described him as "defeated", unable to defend the city against a blow to one of its proudest possessions: a clean government.
While Hong Kong needs to treasure and keep strengthening its traditional economic competitive edge, there is another clear "edge" we cannot afford to lose - a corruption-free environment. This explains the public outcry over the extravagant entertainment lavished on mainland officials by former Independent Commission Against Corruption commissioner Timothy Tong Hin-ming. A timely and thorough probe into the case is necessary to restore the public's confidence in both the ICAC and the government as a whole.