'As our counterparts in Guangdong and Shenzhen heatedly debate what lies ahead for them, we have everything to lose if we just stay put. To surrender our autonomy to mainland planners is of course not acceptable; yet, to do nothing and not be involved in the planning process would be no better than leaving our city's future prospects in the hands of our neighbours.'
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung,
Insight page, March 23
It's a common sentiment and I'm sure many heads wagged in agreement. Hong Kong has obviously to do its economic planning together with the rest of the Pearl River Delta. By going it alone, we will just isolate ourselves and then we will go nowhere.
I still have my doubts.
As a general rule, economic planning is a necessary evil best kept to a minimum. Hong Kong's success was built not on economic plans but on economic accidents exploited by clever and adaptable entrepreneurs. I'm told we cannot afford to rely on this in the future. I wonder if we can afford not to.
The overindulgence in economic planning that we now have in its place rarely produces more than a single repeated idea - pour more concrete. I don't know what it is with economic planners that they can only think roads, bridges and tunnels, but it's a fact and they don't seem to bother much with whether there is real need.
Thus we are now to sink HK$67 billion into a high-speed railway that we never knew we wanted until we were told that we did, and for which no formal planning process took place on this side of the border.
It sets the stage for what we can expect of all joint planning with official entities in Guangdong. It will not be joint. They will plan. We will join. This is what their concept of doing things together with Hong Kong comes down to in the end.
The high-speed railway project has made it as clear as daylight. We will be allowed in if we bring our money but we had better listen to what we are told to do. The party will otherwise be displeased and the party knows how to put Hong Kong compatriots in their places when they forget that the motherland has resumed sovereignty.
Thus it is all very well for Mr Cheung to say that surrendering our autonomy to mainland planners 'is of course not acceptable' but these mainland planners will accept nothing else. They have showed us so with that railway project.
All of this assumes that there is a unity of planning purpose among the different levels of government in Guangdong. I have seen little evidence of it. They can be pushed together when need be but otherwise every township does more of competing than of co-operating.
The danger is that we will agree to a master plan and then find ourselves the only ones following it.
But a more fundamental reason to be wary of co-operating too closely is that Hong Kong's economy has always been built on doing what China will not do. This goes all the way back to the dubious history of the Opium Wars.
In more recent history we had a big garment industry 30 years ago only because China's affairs were in such confusion that it could not build one itself. Cross-border locations were always the better choice for garments, however, and very quickly became so again when reform took hold.
The garment industry vanished from Hong Kong then within a few years, except for declaration of origin subterfuges, and we had to find something new. We did. The service trades took over as the driving engine of growth.
The importance of some of these service trades is now also beginning to diminish. The port, for instance, is on its way out. The natural ports for the mainland's exports are in the mainland. We only took on the job for a period and now it is going back to where it naturally belongs.
It is uncharitable to wish that the authorities across the border never come to understand the full importance of the rule of law or the value of free choice but the fact is that, if once they did, we would lose what are at present key pillars of Hong Kong's economy.
I'm sure we would replace them with something new again. I have great faith in this town's ability to exploit economic accident. But let's remember that our prosperity is built on being different.
We do what our neighbours will not or cannot do and then cross our fingers that they won't notice it and copy us too soon. It does not leave much room for economic planning, joint or otherwise.