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Published: 00:16, March 24, 2022 | Updated: 10:06, March 24, 2022
Deeper integration with Chinese mainland is key
By Tim Summers
Published:00:16, March 24, 2022 Updated:10:06, March 24, 2022 By Tim Summers

Hong Kong’s integration into the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area is on track to take off, but more proactive action by Hong Kong to integrate on a policy level is essential to avoid future disruption.

With the opening of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge in 2018, the SAR’s infrastructure leaped into the future, sending a signal that the city was ready for the Greater Bay Area project to take shape.

It is almost five years since the project’s framework agreement was signed and the opportunities of the Greater Bay Area need no introduction. With an economy roughly the size of those of Canada or South Korea, the highly connected region is full of potential.

By adopting a pragmatic and proactive attitude, Hong Kong stands to benefit greatly from the GBA and a society that is more prosperous and equal

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted both areas where Hong Kong could improve integration and those where it already excels.

The successful launch of the Cross-boundary Wealth Management Connect Scheme was achieved despite the pandemic, streamlining access to financial services for residents on each side of the border.

Hong Kong’s finance role is important to the Greater Bay Area, but this alone is not enough to keep the special administrative region competitive with its mainland neighbors and make the most meaningful contribution possible to the wider region.

There are other promising signs on the horizon. The Hong Kong SAR government’s Northern Metropolis development strategy shifts the city toward links with Shenzhen, opening up new opportunities for Hong Kong residents to engage with Shenzhen’s dynamism.

It is no surprise that Hong Kong is performing strongly in financial services and transportation infrastructure, two of its long-standing strengths. The city excels in other areas as well, education being one of them, but it will be hard to make progress in these areas without a more-nuanced take on the SAR’s approach to the GBA.

The principle of “one country, two systems” gives Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy in its governance. However, it should place an emphasis not on continuity of old ways but rather on achieving what is best for the city and the GBA as a whole in the future. The reality is that further integration with the mainland is key to achieving this.

The recent sudden surge in COVID-19 infections in Hong Kong has exemplified the risks. The SAR’s government was too slow to ask for mainland assistance when case numbers began to rise, and unfortunately, its bespoke pandemic strategy has not dealt with the latest wave effectively.

Hong Kong has historically been a meeting point of Chinese and Western approaches, but the pandemic has provided a reminder that meeting in the middle is not always an effective strategy. The SAR has been successful at neither “dynamic zero infection” nor preparing to “live with the virus”.

While there are many areas where Hong Kong can benefit from its high degree of autonomy, pandemic control is not one of them. Apart from anything else, Hong Kong’s geography does not allow it. The continued restrictions on regular travel between Hong Kong and the mainland have stifled the SAR’s integration into the GBA with the impact felt most by people who travel across the border regularly for family, educational and business needs.

While disruption on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic may not threaten the region again for years to come, it is important that the SAR government embrace its role as an inseparable part of the GBA by further streamlining integration and preventing similar disruptions in the future. Hong Kong must make decisions not just with its own interests in mind, but thinking about the GBA and the overall national interest as well.

Devising the right policy is not easy. Hong Kong’s international connectivity is vital to the city’s economy. But more closely aligning the city’s pandemic response with the mainland’s strategy could have prevented much of the economic and social hardship that the border closure and subsequent outbreaks have caused.

The quality living circle is one aspect of the GBA plan that could have the largest impact on most people’s lives. Progress on this front has been almost entirely stalled by the pandemic. With it, social inequalities could rise, contrary to the goal of achieving common prosperity in the region.

The SAR government recognized this and began taking steps to facilitate a border reopening in the latter half of 2021, but too little was done too late. In many cases, the government chose to wait until something went wrong or it was directed by mainland counterparts to make a change.

This is not to say Hong Kong cannot have a distinctive approach to implementing policy. Macao’s pandemic control has been highly successful, not because it mimicked the mainland in every detail but because it did not hesitate to adopt elements of the mainland’s strategy (like a health code) that were practical and effective.

Pandemic control merely provides an exaggerated and timely example of the challenges that a lack of integration creates, but there are other cases, from outdated payment systems and restrictive vehicle registration to restrictions on foreign-passport holders, that hinder the ability of the SAR to integrate into the GBA.

While some of these areas will require changes by mainland authorities as well, the Hong Kong SAR government should take the lead in making its policies work more smoothly with the mainland, rather than waiting for the mainland to accommodate it.

By adopting a pragmatic and proactive attitude, Hong Kong stands to benefit greatly from the GBA and a society that is more prosperous and equal. Its role in the region can stretch beyond financial services to encompass all of the SAR’s strengths.

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

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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