One of my professors at university, Harold Conklin, was an expert on an unusual tribe in the southern Philippines called the Hanunoo. The language of this remote community was in constant hyperdrive, changing rapidly through elaborate word play. Three years after finishing his dissertation, Dr Conklin revisited the island of Mindoro and was unable to understand a word. The children just giggled at him. I always think this is a powerful illustration of the gap that can arise between words and meaning. Every culture has its counterparts. In Hong Kong, it is the phrase, 'one country, two systems'. When it was first coined, 'one country, two systems' expressed the brash pragmatism of China's early era of reforms. Against the backdrop of the cold war, the idea was that capitalist Hong Kong could coexist with China's market socialism in an economic patchwork. At the time of the Sino-British negotiations in 1984, this was a bold idea. Two decades later, the original meaning of 'one country, two systems' has been lost, replaced by a welter of arguments over sovereignty and political development. Like the tribal children who laughed at my anthropology professor, anyone who argued now that Hong Kong should maintain economic isolation from the mainland would be a figure of fun. In economic terms, it no longer makes much sense to speak of contrasting systems. Hong Kong has an enviable position dominating financial and logistics services to the most expansive region within the world's most expansive economy. How it manages this niche will determine its future, and may require putting new pressure on Hong Kong's leaders to complete economic reforms alongside the political evolution that currently occupies centre stage. It is, perhaps, a testimony to the power of tunnel vision how little Hong Kong understands its contribution to growth in south China and the Pearl River Delta. Michael Enright, Sun Hung Kai professor of business at the University of Hong Kong, explained the relationship succinctly in a speech last week to assembled chambers of commerce in Hong Kong. 'It's still the combination of a Hong Kong and south China that's pushing development here,' he said. 'Other parts of China simply don't have a Hong Kong.' With US$622 billion in trade in 2002, the 'Greater Pearl River Delta' economy of Hong Kong, Macau and the delta is among the world's top 10 trading economies. The integration and deepening of this vast regional economy would be impossible without Hong Kong. Its comparative advantage as a platform for money managers and service providers has made it indispensable. The Hong Kong advantage does, however, have a sell-by date. Unless the city continues to change, grow and maintain its edge, its advantage could atrophy and south China will be the loser. It is in this light that Hong Kong's Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement with the mainland should be taken seriously - not as a blunt instrument to provide advantages to Hong Kong companies, but as a marker of a change in mindset. The lesson of other regional trade agreements is that they provide successful symbols of economic collaboration - even if reality lags behind. For example, when Canada and the United States signed a free-trade agreement in 1989, it did little to change the overall structure of trade between the two countries, but much to change other patterns of economic exchange. In symbolic terms, the expansion of Cepa that occurred last week signals the growing importance of Hong Kong as a hub of the world's fastest-growing regional economy. To citizens of Hong Kong and the mainland, it should be a reminder of how much the two economies have to offer each other, as well as how much they have grown together. The era of 'one country, one system' may be closer than we think.