With state backing for innovation, Hong Kong must seize the moment

Thanks to their direct appeal to President Xi Jinping, 24 city scientists and university professors have cleared the way to national research funding and the economic benefits it promises

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 5:46am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 5:46am

Hong Kong’s innovation and technology development has been given a much-needed shot in the arm by President Xi Jinping. Not only did he endorse the city’s quest to become an international innovation hub, he also directed state agencies to give local scientists greater access to national research funding.

This is one of the best examples of how the special administrative region can benefit from “one country, two systems”. It is incumbent upon us to make the most of the new arrangement. This is not only for our own good, but also for the sake of national development interests.

Xi was responding to an appeal by 24 local scientists and university professors, who wrote to him last year expressing hope of contributing to the motherland.

But the underlying issue is clear. Local researchers have long been frustrated by restrictions on the mainland. They were subject to heavy tax when moving equipment across the border and also unable to obtain national grants even when collaborating with mainland researchers.

The divide, the so-called money not crossing the bridge, does not square with the intensifying cross-border exchange and cooperation on education, culture and science.

It is encouraging to see that the issues have been addressed at the highest level, but credit must also go to the academics who wrote to the president. As a result, the ministries of finance, and science and technology issued a 12-point regulation in February, enabling Hong Kong and Macau institutions to take part in national research funding schemes.

More than 20 laboratories and research centres based in the city have already received funding worth more than 20 million yuan (HK$25 million).

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It is true that the city still has a long way to go in developing innovation and technology into a fully fledged industry, but our talents and research capability are among the world’s best. Together with our international outlook, free flow of information and academic freedom, we stand to scale new heights by being given greater access to the mainland innovation and research domain.

Unlocking funding is just overcoming the first hurdle. Whether we can maximise the benefit depends on our ability and will. The importance attached to developing innovation and technology by the Hong Kong government is to be commended, but compared to other economies, our input on this front is still woefully lagging.

For instance, Shenzhen spent nearly 84.3 billion yuan on research and development in 2016, representing 4.3 per cent of its GDP. Our funding, however, only reached HK$19.7 billion, or 0.79 per cent of GDP. Now that we have state backing in our quest for innovation, we must seize the moment to achieve more.