This year the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region officially begins to integrate its own development into the country’s overall growth strategy in response to General Secretary Xi Jinping’s encouragement in his report at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China last October. Compared with economic integration efforts under the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland, which is frequently supplemented, the new comprehensive development integration should start with some big steps, such as playing a proactive part in the Belt and Road Initiative and Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area development scheme.
To the country, those two undertakings are connected, with obvious differences. To Hong Kong, their connection is more important than differences. Hong Kong does not necessarily have to achieve major breakthroughs in the GBA development scheme first in order to land a leading role in the B&R. But, without becoming an integral part of the GBA there is no way Hong Kong can shine in the B&R.
I’m sure some people will disagree with me on the conclusion above, saying Hong Kong as a cosmopolitan city can and should easily play a major B&R role, or even the lead role, without the GBA as a platform and base.
Such views may seem credible at a glance but fall apart under close scrutiny. Critics forget the crucial condition known as “people-to-people bonds”.
The biggest obstacles to Hong Kong becoming an integral part of the GBA lie in a visible boundary (boundary-crossing control) and invisible boundary (ideological differences between the city and mainland); the latter are more difficult to overcome. In other words, to become an integral part of the GBA, Hong Kong must overcome the invisible boundary by forging a “people-to-people bond” with mainland compatriots. “People-to-people bond” does not have to be a common ideology, as long as we have mutual understanding and inclusiveness.
The B&R Initiative also requires a “people-to-people bond”, because we cannot succeed without it. Will Hong Kong find it relatively easy to forge “people-to-people bonds” with B&R countries? One should never underestimate the difficulties in building mutual common understanding.
Some people say Hong Kong can be a contributor to forging “people-to-people bonds” with B&R countries because 10 percent of Hong Kong residents are foreign nationals, and many locals of Chinese descent hold foreign passports.
If only things were that simple. Many of the non-Chinese 10 percent of Hong Kong’s population are from Southeast Asia or South Asia, who live on the fringes of local society because they have been unable to fully integrate themselves into it. Few if any B&R countries have established their own chambers of commerce in Hong Kong. Locals of Chinese descent who hold foreign passports are mostly citizens of a few Western developed countries; whereas most B&R countries are not Western developed countries. Hong Kong’s rich and famous are widely known for having significant connections with Western developed countries and some of them have expressed interest in taking part in the B&R Initiative, but they are not ready to play a prominent role immediately. They need to learn more about those non-Western developed countries along the Belt and Road first, and so does Hong Kong society as a whole.
So far opinions seen in Hong Kong press have focused on difficulties in forging “people-to-people bonds” between Hong Kong and mainland societies, to the neglect of the difficulties in forging “people-to-people bonds” with B&R countries. That does not mean it is easier to do the latter. On the contrary, it shows Hong Kong has barely realized how difficult it is to forge “people-to-people bonds” with B&R countries. What Hong Kong has done about joining the B&R Initiative in past two years is just “warm-up” — most of the study trips by Hong Kong-based organizations to B&R countries were too brief for in-depth studies. Even the few in-depth studies could hardly be considered forging “people-to-people bonds”.
The B&R Initiative requires policy, infrastructure, trade, financial and people-to-people connectivity, sometimes referred to as “connectivity in five areas”. They are all very important but “people-to-people bonds” are more so than the rest because it is the foundation without which the rest cannot last. The GBA city cluster also needs “connectivity in five areas” to succeed, with “people-to-people bond” as the foundation. To play a leading role in B&R and GBA development Hong Kong must take proactive steps to forge “people-to-people bonds” with the mainland and B&R countries.
Once the general direction is clear the next question will be where to begin. For Hong Kong, the most difficult part in forging “people-to-people bonds” with the mainland would be achieving mutual understanding between young people of the two regions, the same in forging “people-to-people bonds” among young people of B&R countries. Young people are usually more open-minded and curious than older generations, which is why we need to be innovative in our efforts to build common understanding among young people of different countries along the B&R and beyond.
(The author is a senior research fellow of China Everbright Holdings)
(Published on Page 8, China Daily Hong Kong Edition, February 28, 2018)