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Published: 23:15, April 12, 2022 | Updated: 13:19, April 14, 2022
New chief executive should make efforts to raise Hong Kong’s tech profile
By Winnie Tang
Published:23:15, April 12, 2022 Updated:13:19, April 14, 2022 By Winnie Tang

On Feb 18, 2019, the central government released the Outline Development Plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area (the GBA Plan), one of the key points being to develop an international innovation and technology hub. The GBA Plan covers the period up to 2022 in the immediate term and extends to 2035 in the long term. It has been three years now, and it is time for us to review the progress and performance, so that we can plan ahead for the future.

In the past three years, Hong Kong has undergone major changes. There was the 2019 social unrest, followed by the waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the hardships, Hong Kong still maintains its leading edge. For example, in the Global Innovation Index 2021 (GII 2021) of the World Intellectual Property Organization, although Hong Kong’s rankings have fluctuated in the past four years, they were all within the world’s top 15. At the same time, several universities in Hong Kong remain in the top 100 positions in both the QS World University Rankings and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

At this critical moment, a leader needs to have acute foresight and unremitting courage to lead Hong Kong to break through, so that this golden goose can lay golden eggs of innovation and technology

In the 14th national Five-Year Plan (2021-25), released last year, the central government laid out seven technology research areas the country will focus on, including new-generation artificial intelligence, quantum information, integrated circuits (or semiconductors), neuroscience and brain-inspired research, genetics and biotechnology, clinical medicine and health, and deep sea, deep space, and polar exploration. Looking at the QS Rankings, Hong Kong has four or five universities among the world’s top 100 in areas like computer science and information systems, and electrical and electronic engineering, proving our strengths in research. When coupled with international advantages, Hong Kong is in an ideal position to outperform other Chinese cities in these strategic emerging industries.

However, is this really the case? In Hong Kong, parents are very happy if their child is going to be a doctor, a lawyer or an accountant, but if the child is talking about becoming a researcher or a scientist, the response would be much different.

Meanwhile, for our neighboring city of Shenzhen, its new economy has accounted for more than 60 percent of the gross domestic product in 2019, and the city possesses 17,000 state-level high-tech enterprises. For Hong Kong, despite the special administrative region government’s investment of more than HK$100 billion ($12.8 billion) in supporting the industry’s development in recent years, Hong Kong’s innovation and technology industry still accounted for only 1 percent of GDP in 2020, in contrast with 20 percent of GDP each from financial services, and trading and logistics in the same period.

We can discern certain clues from the GII 2021. Notwithstanding that Hong Kong was ranked 14th in overall performance, in the “knowledge and technology outputs”, Hong Kong was only ranked 62nd out of the 132 economies. Among them, “knowledge diffusion”, which includes the proportion of high-tech and IT services exports in trade, is closer to the “bottom” ranking at 128th.

When everyone thinks that Hong Kong is fully ready for the development of innovation and technology, it should be a goose that can lay golden eggs, but we have not seen such a precious golden egg laid. Why?

Some people blame the SAR government for being led by mainly civil servants, unlike Shenzhen and Singapore, which are led by technocrats. However, at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak two years ago, the Hong Kong government followed Johns Hopkins University in the United States and launched Asia’s first interactive map dashboard within a few days to display key pandemic information, so that citizens could keep abreast of the latest news. Moreover, the government has been using sewage testing to identify potential virus carriers, and imposes mandatory testing only on buildings that test positive, avoiding full lockdowns to minimize the inconvenience to the public. To do so, they rely on advanced technologies such as geographic information system (GIS) and the virus monitoring system by the University of Hong Kong, which won the Gold Medal at the International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva last year. These experiences are inspiring and can be used for reference in the Greater Bay Area and mainland cities.

The Hong Kong government is not ignorant in the use of technology, but generally has a weak performance in mastering the development of innovation and technology. For example, a tech company complained that when applying for the enterprise support program, it was required to fill in key milestones in the next two years, which sounds ridiculous. In another example, the government still uses traditional methods to evaluate and plan the development of the Northern Metropolis and the Kau Yi Chau artificial islands, and seldom uses advanced technologies such as GIS even though the software is already there, and has proved to be an effective tool for government planning, adopted all over the world. This demonstrated that public money has been wasted and efficiency reduced.

Wang Weizhong, then Communist Party secretary of Shenzhen, mentioned in an interview last year that Shenzhen’s innovation ecological chain of “basic research + applied research results + commercialization + finance technology + talent training” promoted the reform and reconstruction of the innovation system. Its research-and-development investment in 2020 accounted for 5.46 percent of GDP (compared with 0.99 percent for Hong Kong in the same period, less than 20 percent of Shenzhen’s; while Guangdong province has an average of 3.14 percent, more than three times that of Hong Kong). This resulted in the establishment of key strategic laboratories in Shenzhen; the city also got one-third of the total number of international Patent Cooperation Treaty applications of the country.

Meanwhile, mainland provinces and cities such as Nanjing, Wuzhen, and Hefei compete to be homes to overseas IT talents. A local IT entrepreneur was offered a total of 20 million yuan ($3.14 million), including research funding, children education allowances and housing subsidies, to encourage him to settle down in their city. The complicated application procedure in Hong Kong is inevitably a big contrast.

Local media and think tanks such as Our Hong Kong Foundation have put forward solid suggestions on how Hong Kong can embark on a smooth road to innovation and technology, including commercialization of scientific research results of universities into assessment and funding requirements, increasing the portion of commercial benefits that researchers can share, introducing “anchor institutions in the region” to build an industrial ecology, utilizing the Future Fund to invest in deep technology from local universities, and establishing interdisciplinary and inter-university themed laboratories and research institutes, and more.

Among the many recommendations, I think the most effective one would be to set up a high-level office, led by the chief executive and scientific experts, to identify strategic directions for overall innovation and technology development in Hong Kong, to review and update existing legislation, assessment criteria of institutions, project approval procedure, Hong Kong-Shenzhen cooperation, and talent training issues. Most importantly, it should carry out the measures vigorously and resolutely.

At this critical moment, a leader needs to have acute foresight and unremitting courage to lead Hong Kong to break through, so that this golden goose can lay golden eggs of innovation and technology, and propel us to be an international innovation and technology hub. This is exactly what I expect from the new chief executive of Hong Kong.

The author is an adjunct professor in the Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; the Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and the Faculty of Architecture, the University of Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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