The Shenzhen Bay Bridge connecting Hong Kong and Shenzhen is seen on July 13. With national-level politics bogged down by war and discord, cities could be the new source of dynamism for globalisation. Photo: AFP
Wai-Hong Tang and Neville Lai
Wai-Hong Tang and Neville Lai

How great cities like Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Singapore can save globalisation

  • As states are increasingly divided into competing blocs, cities rise as hubs that hold together the unravelling fabric of a deglobalising world
  • Cities’ ability to build and extend new connections will be crucial, and the Greater Bay Area is fertile ground for Hong Kong to do just that
A rivalry of cities is raging in East Asia. As Hong Kong was bogged down by the debate on its quarantine policy, Singapore was seen as overtaking its rival as the region’s leading global financial centre by actively attracting businesses, capital and talent that had lost confidence in Hong Kong.
In the meantime, across Hong Kong’s northern border, the Shenzhen municipal government has pledged to develop the city into an international centre of financial technology by 2025. In the face of these challenges, the Hong Kong government secured the commitment of the world’s leading bankers to attend the city’s financial summit and finally decided to lift compulsory hotel quarantine.
While many in Hong Kong worry that the city is losing its advantage, the competition between cities demonstrates their resilience. At a time when the state-based global governance architecture has been paralysed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Covid-19 pandemic and the rise of populism, how cities will navigate the ever-changing geopolitical landscape is an important and fascinating question.

As states are increasingly divided into competing blocs, metropolises situated along ideological and geopolitical fault lines will re-emerge and rise as hubs that will hold together the unravelling fabric of a deglobalising world.

As hubs of commerce, finance, talent and ideas, global cities nurture and uphold liberal international values. In 2017, for example, when US president Donald Trump announced his country’s withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement, New York City and California formed America’s Pledge, an alliance of states and cities across the country that were committed to supporting the climate agreement.


Singapore reverses downward-population trend, while Hong Kong exodus continues

Singapore reverses downward-population trend, while Hong Kong exodus continues
The growing importance of cities in global governance led to the establishment of the Global Smart Cities Alliance during Japan’s presidency of the Group of 20 in 2019. While states continue to erect different forms of barriers, global cities – with their high connectivity, open economy, cultural diversity and innovation capacity – will become the major drivers of a more decentralised globalisation in the future.
Historically, cities have been the grounds for new ideas and experiments. In China, the New Culture Movement and the May Fourth Movement began among intellectual circles in Beijing. As waves of new thinking swept across the country’s major cities, Mao Zedong and a group of intellectuals founded the Communist Party in the French concession of Shanghai in 1921.

Almost 80 years after the founding of the party, the establishment of Shenzhen as a special economic zone by Deng Xiaoping kick-started China’s “reform and opening up”. Today, Shenzhen is emerging as a major hub of technological innovation and smart city development, with open collaboration with overseas counterparts to enable technological development.

Recently, the city launched a joint initiative with Singapore to promote collaboration in the Internet of Things, blockchain technology, robotics and digital-twin-enabled solutions.

From trade and investment policy to knowledge transfer, cities have always been the generators and testing grounds of revolutionary ideas that have become innovative solutions to the problems of global governance. The key to the success of cosmopolitan cities is to embrace rather than suppress diversity of thinking.


Hong Kong's competitive edge questioned as Xi says Shenzhen is engine of China’s Greater Bay Area

Hong Kong's competitive edge questioned as Xi says Shenzhen is engine of China’s Greater Bay Area
This cosmopolitan identity, which requires cities to maintain a degree of flexibility and autonomy in advancing best interests – even if they might at times be at odds with national policy – will continue to play an important role in sustaining the future of globalisation.
Like other great cities situated along civilisational, ideological and geopolitical fault lines, Hong Kong has always faced external pressures and challenges. It is the flexibility, openness and resilience during uncertain times that have made it a truly global city.
The future of globalisation will hinge not just on cities’ ability to hold the unravelling fabric of world order together but also their ability to build and extend new connections. The Greater Bay Area provides an opportunity for Hong Kong to extend its networks and, by doing so, expand its urban hinterland.


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
Although many compare the Greater Bay Area with other city clusters such as the San Francisco Bay Area or Greater Tokyo Area, Hong Kong’s role and geostrategic significance is distinct among peer cities. In the United States, for example, adjacent cities can grow into mega regions relatively easily because they share common political and legal institutions.

In contrast, the Greater Bay Area has three special economic zones, three pilot free-trade zones and two special administrative regions with different institutional infrastructures. Additionally, under “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong is where Chinese values, institutions and norms join, mix or clash with their Western counterparts.

Notwithstanding the struggles the city has faced, Hong Kong continues to embody the great experiment of globalisation that will have important implications for China’s development in the future.

Wai-Hong Tang is an independent researcher on the international political economy of East and Central Asia and has a PhD in politics and international studies from the University of Warwick

Neville Lai is an independent researcher on global affairs. He is the vice-curator of Global Shapers Community Hong Kong Hub