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Not only can the individual cities contribute their own strengths, but also the Greater Bay Area has the potential to be more than just special administrative regions marching to meet their cross-boundary cousins. Illustration: Craig Stephens

Can ‘one country, multiple systems’ work for China’s bay area development?

David Ketchum and Scott Cheng say the different political, legal and economic systems of the cities comprising the Greater Bay Area make the scheme distinct from other megacities around the world. The ancient Greek city states, however, might provide inspiration

The phrase “bay area” immediately conjures up images of the San Francisco success story – melding the innovation of Stanford University and Silicon Valley with the financial muscle of downtown San Francisco. It’s little wonder that the Chinese government has branded its plan, to bring together the disparate urban elements of the Pearl River Delta, the “ Greater Bay Area”.
Sydney, Tokyo, London and New York are historical precedents of successful cities with global access thanks to their harbours. However, the comparisons with the initiative in southern China don’t extend very far because each of the other bay area cities evolved and expanded in a centrifugal way to engulf adjacent suburbs and form monster metropolises. The Greater Bay Area concept, on the other hand, requires that diverse smaller and larger – and sometimes competing – cities be brought together under a centrally mandated plan.
The government work report delivered by Premier Li Keqiang in March last year formally identified the Greater Bay Area as a key component of China’s strategic national development plan. Bringing together Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Macau – as well as Zhuhai, Huizhou, Dongguan, Foshan, Jiangmen, Zhaoqing and Zhongshan – with more collaboration and physical, economic, social, cultural and no doubt political integration is on the cards in the coming years. With the opening of the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai Bridge and the express rail link, these cities will be between 10 and 50 per cent closer together in travel time. That physical manifestation will be one of the first signs of the Greater Bay Area gradually taking shape, but nobody is sure what its final form will look like.

What are the chances that the Greater Bay Area will rival if not outdo other global megacities? Today, the combined area of the planned Greater Bay Area houses 66 million people and has a gross domestic product of US$1.4 trillion (HK$10.95 trillion). Compare this with the San Francisco Bay Area’s 7.6 million people and GDP of US$800 billion, Greater Tokyo’s 37.8 million people and GDP of US$1.6 trillion and Greater New York’s 20 million people and GDP of US$1.5 trillion and the potential is immediately clear.

However, the success model is by no means assured. The cultural differences between these adjacent cities are evident in day-to-day commerce and social interactions. An immediate complicating factor is that Hong Kong and Macau do not share the same government, legal and tax systems and most importantly, business practices with each another or Shenzhen, Macau, Zhuhai and Guangzhou. Because a market economy still prevails in Hong Kong while a planned economic system prevails in other cities, the policy objectives and the pace of the creation of the Greater Bay Area vary considerably. Although in 30 years the physical customs and border controls separating Hong Kong from the rest of the cities in the Greater Bay Area may not exist, they stop unrestricted flows of money, people and goods in the region. The unique attributes of and differences between Manhattan, Brooklyn and northern New Jersey help make the New York City metro region great, but there is no immigration checkpoint on the Brooklyn Bridge or in the Holland Tunnel.
One way forward is to set aside political complexity in order to achieve economic success with a council in the spirit of ancient Greek city states
The unique challenges facing the creation of the Greater Bay Area in the Pearl River Delta also bring opportunities. This multi-metropolis model is not about achieving overnight homogeneity, and each city brings distinctive competitive edges and strengths to the whole. Just announcing the assembling of the parts potentially activates larger business and social opportunities for all, as well as creating internal tensions among formally separate fiefdoms.
Aside from the wedge between Hong Kong and the rest of the cities, focus and resources are needed to make this megacity work by addressing the potential effects of conurbation on transport, competition for talent, water and the environment, and quality of life as ties grow closer among the cities. Ultimately, as always, people’s mindsets will be more important than infrastructure. Personal and professional opportunities arising from promoting Chinese exports globally or reinforcing the Greater Bay Area’s status as a worldwide transport, finance and innovation hub will do more than government mandated integration.
The West Kowloon terminus of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link which will connect Hong Kong to China’s high-speed rail network. There has been controversy over the presence of mainland immigration officials at the terminus. Photo: Xinhua
The Greater Bay Area is a foregone conclusion – the only question is how well or poorly it will be realised. Generations of central planning and initiatives such as the “Belt and Road Initiative” and migration into the area will align to transform southern China. Perhaps the key to success lies in the historical precedent of “ one country, two systems” – except now with the overlay of “one country, multisystems”. Not only can the individual cities contribute their own strengths, but also the Greater Bay Area has the potential to be more than just special administrative regions marching to meet their cross-boundary cousins.

What’s the Greater Bay Area plan? Hong Kong’s young people don’t know either, with half having never heard of it

Overarching government is not the answer. One way forward is to set aside political complexity in order to achieve economic success with a council in the spirit of ancient Greek city states but still constituting a Greater Bay Area within one country. Each city state governed its own local affairs but joined forces to achieve common goals. Allowing each city to thrive in its own ways and within its own system has the potential to accelerate the region’s development. As with the Greek city states, leaders and influencers from diverse backgrounds across the greater bay area have the potential to create more and better ideas for economic prosperity and global competitiveness.

David Ketchum is founder and CEO of Current Asia and chairman of Digital + Direct Marketing Association Asia. Scott Cheng is a public affairs and communications consultant and a former public policy researcher with the One Country Two Systems Research Institute and the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Multiple challenges