People travel across the Shenzhen Bay border on December 28, 2021. Those who have tried booking quarantine rooms across the border are likely to have encountered scalper bots. Photo: May Tse
Patrick Jiang
Patrick Jiang

As Shenzhen quarantine scalping shows, regional integration is easier said than done

  • All throughout the Greater Bay Area, disparate ways of doing things and different expectations of how life works raise challenges for deeper integration
  • Hard work and open minds are necessary, as Hong Kong seeks to participate in the Greater Bay Area

With the new administration in place, Hong Kong has begun tackling its most pressing issues with renewed vigour. Participation in the Greater Bay Area, undoubtedly the most significant factor in the city’s near-term development, will again be a matter of urgency.

The Greater Bay Area is, at its core, a regional integration project. On a technical level, it implies a harmonisation of business and governance practices, which throws up a number of challenges because the accepted ways of doing things can diverge across the region.

One doesn’t have to be a business tycoon to have experienced this; countless people have been kept apart from their families and friends in Guangdong during the pandemic, for example, and those who have considered making the trip across the border would probably have encountered scalper bots.

Currently, Shenzhen allows up to 2,000 people a day to cross the border, if they have reserved quarantine rooms. The rooms can be booked through a government website on a first-come, first-served basis, and a mad scramble begins at 10am every day. Not surprisingly, the system has been gamed by bots, with so-called “travel agents” selling reservations for HK$2,000 to HK$3,500. That’s a pretty hefty mark-up on what is supposed to be a free government service.

For its part, the Shenzhen government has only recently indicated it will improve the system and combat speculation, even though complaints have been circulating on internet forums for at least six months. On the mainland, scalper bots have long been a fact of life, especially when it comes to securing anything in scarce supply, from hospital appointments to train tickets for the Lunar New Year trip home.


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High hopes for China’s Greater Bay Area, but integrating 11 cities will pose challenges
Contrast this with an “internationalised” way of doing things, which many Disney fans on the mainland had a taste of recently. Around last Christmas, Shanghai Disney Resort was preparing to launch seasonal plush toys of LinaBell, a hugely popular new character from the Duffy & Friends line.

In a bid to prevent long queues, the resort had invited fans to make reservations online on a first-come, first-served basis. But, as demand far outstripped supply, consumers experienced technical glitches in trying to reserve toys and accusations of scalping arose. The result: a lot of angry Disney fans.

In this case, Disney immediately apologised and quickly rectified the situation. Within days, it rolled out an online lottery system, with oversight by a public notary to guarantee fairness. This new system was widely applauded and remains in place. The toys still resell for very high premiums, but at least everyone had an equal chance to buy them at the original price.

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The differences between these two stories are not merely superficial. They reveal very different practices and expectations of how life works. Throughout the Greater Bay Area, disparate ways of doing things raise challenges for deeper integration.

Therefore, to push forward with regional integration, it is important for everyone to reflect on the fundamental goals. As it stands, the Greater Bay Area has “specialness” in abundance, whether through special administrative regions or special economic zones. Lately, Qianhai in Shenzhen has even emerged as a “special zone within a special zone”.


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Specialness is one core advantage of the Greater Bay Area. However, specialness cannot exist for its own sake. Rather, it is a licence to experiment with new ways of doing things. If the experiment succeeds, others will follow. Ironically, the ultimate measure of success for a special region is a lack of specialness – because everyone else would have changed to become more like the “special” region.

Learning flows in all directions. Sometimes, you learn from others; sometimes, they learn from you. But everyone should be pursuing higher standards, not settling for lower ones. It ill behoves anyone to be too smug about their own established ways, although different parts of the Greater Bay Area have been guilty of this at different times.

The success of the Greater Bay Area is not a foregone conclusion. It requires hard work and open minds. To that end, I am very encouraged to hear Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu say that he is a “pragmatic” and “result-oriented” leader. I hope he and everyone else involved can find the ambition and humility to take this development project forward. Our future may well depend on it.

Patrick Jiang is an honorary research associate at the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong