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40 years of reform and opening up

Torn mosquito nets, cockroaches in Shenzhen, but Hong Kong engineer Raymond Ho was among those happy to share knowledge with mainland Chinese officials

  • Hong Kong played key role in mainland’s economic transformation in the 1980s, says engineer Raymond Ho, who witnessed early years of China’s opening up
  • Officials, businessmen learned from city’s experts, but Hong Kong continued to thrive as Beijing never wanted it to be ‘just another typical Chinese city’
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 November, 2018, 5:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 November, 2018, 3:47pm

Dr Raymond Ho Chung-tai vividly remembers visiting mainland Chinese cities in the late 1970s and 1980s to meet officials and businessmen eager to know every secret to Hong Kong’s success.

One trip to Guangdong province in 1979 remains etched in his mind.

“There were six beds in a room, with six mosquito nets that were torn, with large holes in them. There had to be a lit mosquito coil on the ground or you would get bitten all over your body,” the former president of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers recalled.

“There were spider’s webs, cockroaches and all kinds of insects all over the walls.”

Taking a bath was an adventure too. “The water pressure in the shower was so weak that no one dared to use soap, as you would never wash it off,” he said.

The rundown guest house in Shenzhen was called The Fishermen’s Reception and Ho was there to advise mainland officials before the area known as Xiangzhou was renamed Zhuhai and declared a special economic zone.

The shabby accommodation did not matter, he said, because it was an exciting time to be there, as new development was taking off in a big way and mainland officials were keen to pick the brains of visiting Hong Kong experts.

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“They wished to learn so much about how Hong Kong worked,” Ho said. “They would ask me if I had three hours for them. Then four to six people would come. I would talk and they would jot down notes throughout.”

Groups of Communist Party officials also visited Hong Kong in the 1980s, hungry for information on everything from public transport to infrastructure, environmental protection and energy facilities.

Ho had a doctorate in civil engineering from City, University of London and at the time was a partner of one of the largest consultancies in Hong Kong, heavily involved in government-funded infrastructure works for new towns in Sha Tin and Tseung Kwan O.

Ho was part of the first batch of Hong Kong professionals – among them surveyor and future Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying – to join the Association of Experts Modernisation, which was set up by pro-Beijing lawyer Dorothy Liu Yiu-chu.

She wanted to connect professionals – lawyers, accountants, surveyors and engineers – to contribute to China’s reform and opening up, as Hong Kong was a successful model of a fishing village that grew into a flourishing economy.

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Ho and Leung were also appointed to advise the Shenzhen municipal government on real estate matters in the 1980s.

When reclamation work began in Shekou, at the southern tip of Shenzhen, they were invited on a boat trip to check the sea walls. Over the years that followed, Shenzhen reclaimed 69 square kilometres, six times the size of the Shekou peninsula.

On December 1, 1987, the two men witnessed the historic day when Shenzhen hosted China’s first auction involving the transfer of state-owned land use rights for a fee.

They learned from the experience of Hong Kong and started to build on the concept that land could be regarded as a resource
Raymond Ho

That auction was a replica of the Hong Kong system and even the hammer used was a gift from the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors.

“They learned from the experience of Hong Kong and started to build on the concept that land could be regarded as a resource,” Ho said.

Ho, a former member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and local deputy to the National People’s Congress, was also the founding chairman of the Belt and Road Global Development Alliance, set up in 2011 to encourage the city’s professionals and businessmen to take advantage of opportunities created by China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

He saw the Belt and Road as the next big step in Hong Kong being a part of major developments on the mainland.

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Looking back at the past 40 years, Ho had no doubt that Hong Kong played a significant role in China’s reform and opening up and said he was impressed throughout by Beijing’s determination to retain the city’s uniqueness.

He said Hong Kong had remained a competitive international city which still played an important role in China, the world’s second largest economy.

“I was told very early that they would not turn Hong Kong into just another city typical of China, as it would not be beneficial for them,” he said.

“They needed a window connecting the mainland with the world.”