Guangdong authorities are studying a plan to create a free-trade zone covering parts of the province, Hong Kong and Macau.
The idea, floated by provincial party secretary Hu Chunhua at a Pan Pearl Delta forum yesterday, came two weeks after Shanghai won State Council approval to set up the mainland's first free-trade zone.
It is the first time a leader of Hu's stature has raised the idea of forming a free-trade zone spanning Guangdong's borders with the two special administrative regions, adding weight to the proposal.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said he had discussed the idea with Hu and was also looking into it.
"I have met Mr Hu to discuss [the free-trade zone], but it is still in its infancy," he said in Guiyang , Guizhou province, where the forum was held.
No concrete details were offered yesterday about how the free-trade zone should be formed, how it would operate or what its role would be. But among the initial ideas was a plan to bundle the new zone with three existing special development zones in Guangdong, according to some mainland media reports. Those zones - earmarked as pilot free-trade zones - are Qianhai in Shenzhen, Hengqin Island off Zhuhai , and Nansha in Guangzhou.
If formed, the new zone would cover more than 1,000 square kilometres, making it much bigger than Shanghai's 28.78 sq km zone.
The revelation of the plan by Hu, a member of the Politburo, came as Vice-Premier Wang Yang called for closer co-operation between the Pearl River Delta region economies.
"In the wake of the rapid rise of the other places on the mainland, the [region] is bound to be taken over if it cannot keep moving forward," Wang, a former Guangdong party secretary, said.
Leung said the plan was part of moves towards more opening up of the mainland economy. "The mainland's opening-up policy is to encourage reforms by opening up more, which can in turn encourage further opening up by introducing further reforms," Leung said.
Ding Li , an economist at the Guangdong Academy of Social Science, believed more innovative measures would be tried in the free-trade zone covering Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau than in Shanghai's.
"The central government may apply some rules of Hong Kong and Macau to Guangdong," he said. "The formation of a cross-border free-trade zone could provide a strong hinterland for the offshore yuan business in Hong Kong, such as allowing easier investment of offshore yuan back to the mainland."
The official China Daily reported last week that Guangdong officials had been asked to apply "immediately" to the central government for approval to begin forming the zone. It would include the three special development zones in the province as well as the economic development zone in Guangzhou's airport area.
Shanghai is preparing to launch its free-trade zone, touted by state media as an area for major experiments in financial reform, commodities trading and logistics services. Free-trade zones have also been proposed by other cities, including Tianjin and Xiamen.