Forty years ago, US president John F. Kennedy told Americans to ask what they could do for their country rather than what it could do for them. That famous statement of steely self-sacrifice has a certain ring in the very different circumstances of Hong Kong's relations with Beijing. Few would have guessed how quickly Hong Kong would switch from swaggering sophisticate to what often appears like a needy supplicant in cross-border economic dealings. Despite our still vast public and private wealth, rarely a week goes by without some new initiative aimed at giving Hong Kong a helping hand. Many have focused on providing local firms a leg-up in entering the mainland market over and above foreign rivals. Such schemes belie the fact that Hong Kong remains the mainland's dominant source of foreign investment and a major conduit for trade and related services. Yet they have been heralded as a potential elixir for struggling local industries. Yesterday, a mainland official retorted with an effective: 'Ask not what your country can do for you' on the subject of the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement. His query of what an apparently free-riding Hong Kong brought to the table represented a breath of welcome candour to the debate. Any bargain must be good for both sides and the problem with the proposed free trade pact is that there is little on offer for mainland firms. We welcome initiatives expanding local firm's prospects. Yet, Hong Kong has an uncomfortable habit of approaching economic integration issues merely on the basis of self-interest. Local business associations have reported scepticism in Beijing when the subject of securing Hong Kong firms special access has been raised. While top leaders at this week's legislative meetings again pledged support for Hong Kong, there seems little stomach for special deals. Rather than plotting quick-fix solutions that give Hong Kong an imagined leg-up before the inevitable onslaught of foreign competition, local policymakers would be better advised to get the small things right in changing the cross-border relationship. Improved visa access for mainland tourists and businesspeople has delivered tangible benefits in speeding the flow of people across the border. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's recently announced population policy represents a sensible first step in formalising a new framework for inward migration to Hong Kong. The interests of local firms can be better advanced by focusing official efforts in areas where Hong Kong's unique status offers the mainland something in return. Such apparent 'win-win' solutions look possible as Beijing experiments with liberalisation of its capital account, progressively lifting restrictions on the flow of funds. There are sound economic reasons for Beijing to liberalise capital movements and allow mainland institutions to invest offshore. If Hong Kong, with its tighter regulatory control, is used as a testing ground, both parties should benefit. The same logic dictates that local banks be allowed early access to offer yuan business within Hong Kong. The common thread is that Hong Kong is likely to secure many benefits, perhaps unimagined today, because of its unique status as a free port with unfettered controls over currency movements. The Hong Kong advantage lies in the free flow of people, ideas and investment. Such basic principles are worth remembering when setting the ground rules for a new kind of economic integration. So are old-fashioned principles about not asking for something for nothing.