Illustration: Craig Stephens
Brian Y. S. Wong
Brian Y. S. Wong

World beyond Greater Bay Area also holds promise for Hong Kong youth

  • While the Greater Bay Area is an important part of Hong Kong’s future, it is not necessarily right for every young person in the city
  • There are also opportunities to be had in major mainland cities like Beijing and Shanghai, rising inland provinces, Southeast Asia and the wider world
There is no doubt that Hong Kong’s young people are having a tough time right now, facing difficulties that are both long-standing and structural. From unaffordable housing and a constricted employment market – with limited diversity, given people’s reticence to go into local politics – to the mental health crisis exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, Hong Kong youth are struggling.
The standard response appears to be to trot out the Greater Bay Area as a panacea. Don’t have a job? Sick of Hong Kong? Can’t afford your rent? Go to the Greater Bay Area.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not a sceptic. As a pillar of Hong Kong’s economic trajectory, it is vital that the city’s leadership ensures our financial and legal industries not only complement the 86 million-strong megalopolis of which we are a part, but also help to steer it. The Greater Bay Area offers Hong Kong firms and investors a substantial market and stimuli that ought to compel our domestic re-industrialisation.

Yet, it is simply not the answer for every Hong Kong youth. First, many cities in the area have well-formed, saturated and highly sustainable internal economies which have limited appetite for newly arrived Hongkongers. Second, significant cultural and lifestyle differences remain between Hong Kong youth and their counterparts to the north.

Finally, a healthy dose of realism is needed. While the Greater Bay Area might be suited to the cream of the crop among our tech, start-up and entrepreneurial talent, the relatively low wages in other sectors render it a tough sell for young people seeking to balance career development on the mainland with working towards buying property here.


China's ambitious plan to develop it own ‘Greater Bay Area’

China's ambitious plan to develop it own ‘Greater Bay Area’
For the future of all of Hong Kong, there must be other options available beyond the Greater Bay Area. I am certain many in the incoming administration are well aware of this.

For starters, Hong Kong should adopt a dual strategy of broadening and deepening interaction with the rest of the country. The first aspect would involve better regional collaboration with rapidly developing inland provinces and directly administered municipalities – Hubei, Sichuan and Chengdu being among the top candidates. This can take the form of opening doors for managerial, business-oriented Hong Kong talent.

Second, we should seek closer synergy with the Yangtze River Delta through Shanghai and the Capital Economic Zone led by Beijing to provide our youth with more internships and exposure to both multinational and state-owned enterprises operating in these cities.

The government must capitalise on Hong Kong’s competitive edge as a financial nexus, attracting more mainland family and private wealth, as well as high-net-worth citizens. This will help create new employment opportunities for youth who choose to remain in Hong Kong. Integration must not be equated with assimilation into the Greater Bay Area.


High hopes for China’s Greater Bay Area, but integrating 11 cities will pose challenges

High hopes for China’s Greater Bay Area, but integrating 11 cities will pose challenges

Furthermore, Hong Kong youth can look towards Southeast Asia for vibrant career and self-development prospects. The dynamic collective of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations provides significant opportunities for young people to cut their teeth in the education, governance and public policy fields.

Many of our youth are civically minded, with a substantial interest in politics. It is high time Hong Kong sought to rebuild its soft power and capacity to reconnect China with the rest of the world.
As Southeast Asia grows in both population size and purchasing power, its strategic value to China as an economic and financial ally is likely to increase. Given Hong Kong’s proximity and strength of human-to-human ties to the region, it is logical that young people should play a part in backchannel diplomacy efforts between the two.

Our education system must, in turn, provide the necessary linguistic and cultural training so young people can adapt to the local conditions. The study of Malay, Bahasa Indonesia and Vietnamese should be widely available as optional modules. English is important, but so are these regionally prominent languages.

Two-thirds of Hong Kong students say English classes left them unprepared

Finally, let’s not forget what makes Hong Kong unique and valuable to China – our internationalism, rejection of isolationism, openness, cosmopolitan nature and lack of jingoistic closed minds. These virtues can also make our youth great bridge-builders and connectors.

None of this needs to contradict the emphasis placed on the Greater Bay Area; it is complementary to Hong Kong stepping into a more pre-eminent role within the visionary project. The scheme’s success hinges on the participation of foreign investors and firms, and this ethos also underpins China’s commitment to its dual circulation strategy rather than a solely national focus.
Much ink has been spilled in trying to tell China’s story to the world. I believe the best stories tend to be nuanced, truthful and diverse. There can be more than one element to the China story, with Hong Kong serving a critical role as a pioneering site of experimentation, and a window for the world to understand China and vice versa.
Students visit a booth for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area Development Office at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai on July 15, 2021. Photo: Nora Tam

When geopolitical crises threaten China’s ties with the world, which have brought the country’s population vast benefits, it is imperative that Hong Kong youth step up. They can serve as mediators between East and West, equipping foreign firms with insights into the often murky workings of the Chinese economy.

Similarly, those in Hong Kong who have their country’s best interests at heart should strive to help China better interpret and interact with the world. Hong Kong youth should look to the rest of the world.

Brian Wong is a DPhil in Politics candidate at Balliol College, Oxford, a Rhodes Scholar (Hong Kong 2020), and the founding editor-in-chief of the Oxford Political Review