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Published: 19:18, September 05, 2021 | Updated: 09:50, September 07, 2021
Mainland border opening key to better HK integration into Bay Area
By Tim Summers and Austin Bliss
Published:19:18, September 05, 2021 Updated:09:50, September 07, 2021 By Tim Summers and Austin Bliss

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on globally, even in countries with the highest vaccination rates, it is time for Hong Kong to focus as a priority on fully opening the border with the Chinese mainland while making longer-term plans for connectivity with the rest of the world. 

Cross-border travel within the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area has underpinned Hong Kong’s success regionally and globally. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region recorded 236.2 million passenger land border crossings in 2019, more than 30 times its population. 

Hong Kong’s past development and its future prospects are closely tied to its hinterland and to developing further its unique role in the Greater Bay Area initiative. The cross-border flow of people between Hong Kong and the mainland is essential to this. 

The explosion of the Delta COVID-19 variant in many Western countries has created further uncertainty in the global economy. China’s new “dual circulation” strategy aims to provide a layer of protection from instability like this with a greater focus on domestic economic activities while still encouraging global trade — resilience with openness. 

The SAR can position itself to take full advantage of the internal circulation of this strategy without sacrificing its already important role in the global economy. The SAR has traditionally served as a major international gateway for China and it can continue to do so, but the volume of people-to-people connections and economic activity at stake mean a mainland border reopening should take priority over further opening any international borders. 

Despite initial struggles, Hong Kong has done an excellent job of controlling COVID-19 over the past few months. Looking further forward, both pandemic management and the revival of the economy could benefit from closer integration with mainland health authorities. 

The mainland’s contact tracing and mass-testing strategy has already proved effective at preventing the spread of outbreaks between mainland cities. The same expertise could be used to reconnect Hong Kong residents with the rest of the Greater Bay Area and beyond. 

With a few small, but meaningful, adjustments, like the ability to link the mainland’s health code system with the HKSAR’s LeaveHomeSafe app, the Hong Kong anti-pandemic strategy could be brought in line with mainland standards, assuring authorities that they could efficiently conduct contact tracing if a case is found, as well as verify the vaccination status of Hong Kong residents wishing to cross the border. 

The continued effective closure of the border to regular travel threatens to undermine confidence in Hong Kong’s position in the Greater Bay Area. Hong Kong residents should feel comfortable living and working on the mainland, and businesses need the confidence that they can consistently conduct cross-border activities with ease. 

The only way to regain this confidence is to achieve a level of integration in health management between Hong Kong and mainland authorities that prevents future border shutdowns even if cross-border cases emerge once travel resumes. Further integration on public health would also provide a road map to better cooperation in other areas.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the newly opened Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, as well as the city’s first connection to the national high-speed rail network at West Kowloon Station, were tangible examples of the hard work the HKSAR had done to develop cross-border cooperation, with passenger numbers for the latter averaging over 50,000 per day in 2019. 

Today, that number is zero. The station has remained closed for well over a year while the rest of the country’s high speed rail network races into the future, with only short-term localized disruptions if cases are discovered. 

With specific mentions of various cross-border initiatives, the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) makes it clear that this kind of cooperation must be part of Hong Kong’s future. The clock is already ticking on the HKSAR’s chance to make up for time lost because of the pandemic.   

The HKSAR government’s Greater Bay Area Youth Employment Scheme, which encourages young people to take up employment in several Guangdong province cities, is one example of a well-intentioned initiative that may not see its full benefit without the easing of border restrictions. Young people may be less inclined to move to the mainland for work if it means they are unable to visit family back in Hong Kong for extended periods of time, and those who do make the move will miss out on the experience of living in a truly well-connected Greater Bay Area for the time being.  

The purpose of the program is to encourage cross-border integration, not for young people to leave Hong Kong for Guangdong being unable to return to the city for months at a time. After all, the basis of the Greater Bay Area is, at its core, geographic proximity, and strict border controls remove this benefit for many. 

Like youth employment, there are many opportunities from transportation to housing to education in which further integration with the mainland could benefit Hong Kong, but a springboard for any of these to be successful is once again to facilitate the flow of people across the border. The steps necessary to do so not only provide a model for increased cooperation in other areas but the basis for that very cooperation to succeed. 

Another important step forward would be to implement the long-discussed facilitation of more convenient arrangements for travel between Hong Kong and Guangdong for non-Chinese residents (starting with permanent residents) of the HKSAR. Many foreign Hong Kong residents are keen to take advantage of the opportunities the Greater Bay Area offers, and their inclusion would promote an atmosphere of openness in the region that could encourage better understanding of China’s strengths abroad. 

All of this depends on Hong Kong maintaining impeccable pandemic controls which mainland authorities will no doubt demand if border controls are to be loosened, but the city now has a proven track record of success in this regard, and further cooperation with national and Guangdong health authorities will only strengthen its defenses. 

Hong Kong must prepare for a world in which COVID-19 continues to spread globally and wait for the mainland’s lead in opening up to the outside. In the meantime, the potential benefits of closer links with the Greater Bay Area provide a unique opportunity to strengthen the city’s economy regardless of uncertainty overseas.

Tim Summers is an assistant professor at the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and an associate fellow on the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House.

Austin Bliss is a research assistant in the Department of Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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