China Conference 2018

‘Hong Kong shouldn’t just connect mainland to world but shape thinking on Belt and Road plan’, conference hears

Speakers at the South China Morning Post’s annual China Conference urge Hong Kong to use its strengths to capitalise on opportunities presented by China’s development.

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 January, 2018, 6:53pm
UPDATED : Friday, 12 January, 2018, 4:28pm

To remain relevant, Hong Kong must go beyond connecting the mainland to international markets and help establish an “international narrative” to advance China’s Belt and Road global trade development strategy, the city’s top liaison officer for the Qianhai special economic zone in Shenzhen said on Thursday.

Witman Hung, whose role is to help Hong Kong businesses and start-ups set up in the zone tipped to be a financial and commercial hub, said at the South China Morning Post’s annual China Conference: “If you are only a connector, once you connect [the partners], you are out of job. You need to do something more.”

Thus, the city should – aside from being a centre for talent and ideas – see how it could shape thinking on the US$900 billion plan proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2013, Hung said.

If you are only a connector, once you connect [the partners], you are out of job. You need do something more.
Professor Witman Hung Principal Liaison Officer for Hong Kong, Shenzhen Qianhai Authority

“All [Belt and Road] narratives so far have come from Beijing … but [the initiative] was supposed to be the new globalisation … What we are lacking here is an international narrative,” he said at the full-day conference for businessmen, policymakers and investors to discuss the topic Globalisation: The China Perspective and the US Factor.

One way to rectify this would be to get Chinese and foreign think tanks to set up in the city.

“Hong Kong can play a very good role … to encourage free flow of ideas and let [international talents] take the ownership – let non-Chinese think tanks promote the Belt and Road Initiative in their own way because it [will then] become their idea,” he said.

The Belt and Road Initiative – described as a modern-day Silk Road with maritime and land networks connecting China with Asia, Africa and Europe to boost trade and economic growth – has been framed in some countries as Beijing’s grand plan for geopolitical dominance.

In Hong Kong, ranked the world’s freest economy, the former and current chief executives have been focusing on how the city can secure a formal role in the initiative, saying it can be a “super-connector” and use its advantages in professional services and finance to link the mainland to the rest of the world.

Hung’s fellow panellist, Annie Wu Suk-ching, who founded Beijing Air Catering – the first joint venture company on the mainland – said the city should also style itself as a platform for investors from all over to learn more about conducting business in the Belt and Road countries. This would reduce the risks of political turbulence, religious and cultural sensitivities and social problems.

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“From Hong Kong’s perspective, we can set up focus groups to learn how to work with local people [in countries along the Belt and Road] at different levels … this is one way for Hong Kong to provide a platform,” Wu said.

Zhang Yansheng, a former adviser to China’s top economic planning body, told the Post on the sidelines of the conference that Hong Kong was undoubtedly “a great treasure” for China’s future development – including the Belt and Road Initiative – given its mature legal system and expertise in high-end professional services.

But the city would need to harness its strengths more effectively to capitalise on the opportunities presented by China’s development.

“How to make its financial sector better serve innovation, the upgrade of the real economy and the internationalisation of mainland’s economy? That’s a major challenge for Hong Kong,” Zhang said, adding that the city could have a keener grasp of the mainland’s economic needs by taking part in the Greater Bay Area development scheme that links nine cities with Hong Kong and Macau in a bid to form a regional economic powerhouse.

In opening the conference on Thursday, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said her administration was committed to taking part in the scheme.

Zhang said he agreed with Hung’s point on the city having an edge in “intellectual capital”, as it was the only location in the Bay Area that had four world-class universities.

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The city should look ahead by 30 years when charting its own development path, he added, as it would be “hard to predict if the mainland would still rely more on Hong Kong for direct financing than on Shanghai”.

One area it should focus on was boosting innovation to spur new economic activity.

“Turning the four world-class universities into innovative institutions like Stanford would be a direction for Hong Kong to take for the next stage of its economic transformation,” Zhang said.