City Beat
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Security worries stymie hi-tech cooperation between Hong Kong and mainland China

  • So many people are on WeChat now, especially north of the border
  • But in Hong Kong fears linger that private information may be misused
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2018, 1:46pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 November, 2018, 10:17pm

“Let’s exchange business cards to stay in touch,” used to be the refrain when making new contacts.

These days it has been replaced in mainland China by “Do you have a WeChat account? Why don’t we add each other as friends ­– it’s more direct, convenient and quicker.”

On a recent business trip, I heard my peers from the local media jokingly ask if the popular messaging app, developed by Chinese internet giant Tencent, had made business cards obsolete.

Of course, most people still exchange business cards with new acquaintances, but the ritual is accompanied by making “friends” on the multipurpose app to follow up.

More and more Hongkongers are using WeChat these days, for messaging as well as for e-payments, along with other popular apps such as Alipay of Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post.

However, from time to time, people here are also concerned enough to ask some troubling questions, fearing their private information may be misused. What about their personal data and details of their online transactions? Can they be properly protected by mainland companies?

So we raised similar concerns while visiting the Shanghai headquarters of China’s largest online travel agency, Ctrip. Schubert Lou, the company’s chief global information officer, a Hong Kong native who has worked in Shanghai for more than six years, talked about his own story as he gave us an answer.

Lou was born and brought up in Hong Kong, but went on to study in the US, where he stayed to work at eBay, Amdocs and other American internet companies, before he was headhunted for a job on the mainland. He returned to China without hesitation.

“I didn’t think of Hong Kong; after all there was no job offer of this type for me back in Hong Kong then anyway,” he said. “So I came to Shanghai.”

With growing awareness about personal data protection, it’s natural for users on both sides of the border to expect sensitive personal information to be properly stored and protected by both the industry and effective regulations

Lou joined a mainland e-commerce company before being poached by Ctrip.

Being in charge of strategic development for the company’s data platform, Lou knows well the sensitivity and importance of data protection.

When asked how he saw Hong Kong’s hi-tech future, he candidly explained that one factor hindering closer cooperation in technology between Hong Kong and mainland China was the reality that there were two different information systems in the two jurisdictions, with neither able to access the other.

Technology gives people plenty of work and life conveniences. Lou was laughing when asked about the last time he had used cash for payment, admitting he couldn’t quite remember, although he still kept his wallet on him.

As with two different sides of the same coin, Lou said he saw the benefits of these data-based technologies while also understanding Hongkongers’ concerns, especially over cross-border personal data protection.

This has been a delicate issue for quite some time — Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has been advocating hi-tech development and encouraging more cross-border collaboration for a while now. But everything is easier said than done, and the tech field is no exception.

Lou is not the only Hongkonger in his company, and they realise the difficulties in linking Hong Kong’s info system with that of the mainland, due to many reasons, including certain political considerations.

Tencent thinks its warring fiefdoms are now a liability

With growing awareness about personal data protection, it’s natural for users on both sides of the border to expect sensitive personal information to be properly stored and protected by both the industry and effective regulations.

This is a serious issue for both governments to tackle if they really mean business when talking of cooperation.