Integrating with China won’t diminish Hong Kong’s role, despite what some may think

  • Bernard Chan says economics, not politics, drives Greater Bay Area development, and fears that Hong Kong will become just another Chinese city are unwarranted
  • Critics should see how the plan, now boosted by the newly opened bridge to Macau and Zhuhai, can extend Hong Kong’s economic base
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 November, 2018, 1:34pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 November, 2018, 8:27pm

When the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge opened a couple of weeks ago, it was hailed as an engineering marvel. It also met with some criticism from people who doubt the project is worth the considerable cost.

Perhaps these two views are related. As an infrastructure project, the bridge links places separated by nearly 40km of water, while keeping sea lanes open for shipping. It is the longest such fixed link in the world. In addition, it is designed to last 120 years. Obviously, this is expensive – but the economic and other benefits will be enjoyed by generations to come.

One sign of the bridge’s importance is that the opening ceremony was attended by President Xi Jinping, as well as many other local and national leaders. This is because the bridge is seen as a major boost to the Greater Bay Area concept. This plan is aimed at further integrating nine cities in Guangdong province, including Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Foshan, Dongguan and Zhongshan, as well as the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau. The total population of the region is nearly 68 million.

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This plan has the support of the highest levels of the central government in Beijing. The leading group overseeing the project is chaired by Vice-Premier Han Zheng.

This region is already a major economic powerhouse, and Beijing has long wanted to see more cooperation among the various jurisdictions. Back in the mid-2000s, officials raised the idea of a Greater Pearl River Delta economic zone, encompassing the cluster of cities mentioned above.

Some local critics see the plan as primarily political – aimed at merging Hong Kong into mainland China. But it covers 10 other cities. The idea is to get all these local governments to work more as a team rather than compete between themselves in too many economic activities. For example, five cities in the region have international-class airports, several of which have big expansion plans. One city is planning a second airport. It might make more sense to coordinate this expansion and avoid waste – but that requires a more regional and top-down approach.

Anyone who knows the area will be aware that the different cities devise and implement many of their own business promotion, and regulatory, social-service and other policies. While competition is in many ways a good thing, the presence of too many rival, splintered authorities can lead to inefficiency. To Beijing’s planners, this must seem like a drag on the development of the country’s biggest and most advanced regional economy.

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What does this mean for Hong Kong? If anyone is worried about losing autonomy, it should probably be the local officials in the mainland cities. These urban areas are growing into one another. Better coordination could encourage the development of larger-scale clusters in hi-tech and other industries.

The vision is to create a region on a par with, for example, Tokyo. For this to work, this world-class powerhouse needs an international centre that provides financial and professional services, and global connections.

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Hong Kong is the only city in the region – indeed, in China – that can fully play that role. The Bay Area depends on Hong Kong’s unique strengths and abilities, from our free flow of capital to our legal system. No one has an interest in trying to make Hong Kong into another mainland city.

Traditionally, Hong Kong has favoured free-market economic policies. To many of us, the idea of being part of a national plan is perhaps strange. But Hong Kong’s role has also traditionally been to supplement and add value to mainland economic activities, which have been influenced by Beijing’s reforms since the late 1970s. If national policy upgrades the Bay Area cities into a more productive and energetic super-city, Hong Kong will clearly benefit and rise with it.

Better connectivity between Hong Kong and those other cities is essential to this process, like the new bridge and high-speed rail link. It could also mean “software” like common digital payments systems, streamlined personal tax and residency systems, and so on.

I realise that some young people in Hong Kong are cynical when officials go on about Bay Area opportunities. The Bay Area is still a concept, and it will take years to iron out all the details. The key thing to remember is that the “integration” is not about downgrading Hong Kong, but expanding its economic base and potential.

Bernard Chan is convenor of Hong Kong’s Executive Council