Angela Merkel visited innovative Shenzhen on her China trip. Will she stop in Hong Kong next time?

While Hong Kong slipped into second place in global competitiveness, the German chancellor’s visit reflected its neighbour’s rise from backward border town to hi-tech hub

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 May, 2018, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 May, 2018, 9:39pm

“International face” is a popular term mainland Chinese netizens use to describe their globally famous film stars, such as Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi and others.

But when it is used to describe a city, it can mean something different, especially when that city is Hong Kong.

Not many in Hong Kong seemed to pay much attention last week to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s whirlwind two-day visit to China, even when she picked our neighbour, Shenzhen, as her last stop.

Merkel officiated at the opening ceremony for an innovation centre hosted by the German Chamber of Commerce, and visited a local start-up after meeting President Xi Jinping in Beijing, where the two leaders touched on a number of world issues against the backdrop of China-US trade friction. They included a possible collapse of the Iran nuclear deal after Washington decided to pull out, and all the uncertainties concerning the Korean peninsula.

Regardless of their differences on China’s human rights situation, a more practical issue for both Merkel and Xi was how to gain bigger access into each other’s markets, as the two agreed on more technology cooperation projects, including those involving driverless cars and artificial intelligence.

Merkel’s Shenzhen visit was a clear reflection of both sides’ common goal, with this once-backward border town having transformed into China’s major hi-tech hub, housing quite a few German companies.

Coincidences happen, and just as Merkel was to visit this southern mainland city, the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily ran a lengthy article titled: “Wearing an ‘international face’, how can Hong Kong do better in the Greater Bay Area?”

Merkel’s Shenzhen visit was a clear reflection of both sides’ common goal, with this once-backward border town having transformed into China’s major hi-tech hub

At the same time, Hong Kong slipped to second place, below the US, as the world’s most competitive economy, according to the Switzerland-based IMD World Competitiveness Centre.

Although this No 2 ranking is still the envy of many, Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po admitted that Hong Kong scored low in technology and scientific infrastructure, which led to the downgrade. 

This shortcoming could be one major reason for Chan – who stressed that the government had set aside HK$50 billion for innovation and technology development – to visit the southwestern province of Guizhou over the weekend for the China International Big Data Industry Expo 2018. 

But attending a conference is one thing – how the huge funding is to be well spent is another. 

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The Southern Metropolis Daily made a point: quoting a mainland financial institute’s study of “a tale of three cities” – a comparison of Hong Kong, Shenzhen and the city state of Singapore – it pointed out that a risk for Hong Kong is the dominant role of property and the city’s overreliance on the service industry. 

Acknowledging the latest efforts in pushing for innovation by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and her administration, the piece, however, warned that Hong Kong should realise the need for hi-tech cooperation with cities in the Greater Bay Area nowadays rather than relying on the old, labour-intensive model.

Hong Kong earned its “international face” through many commendable traditions, such as the rule of law, efficiency and a free market – all still much admired on the mainland. But it’s also true that rising cities such as Shenzhen are becoming more attractive to foreign investors and Western leaders like Merkel. 

Since taking office, Lam has been proactively reaching out to foreign countries to promote Hong Kong’s uniqueness. Now she may well try to get more foreign leaders to come and see and feel that Hong Kong can be as innovative, too.