Don’t doubt Hong Kong’s importance to China, say experts, as they outline strengths that can help country become global tech power

Tony Cheung
·6-min read

The role Hong Kong plays in China’s drive to become a global technological power remains vital as the city boasts world-class universities and an open environment for scientific research, according to a panel of economic planners and experts.

The group gave its ringing endorsement of the city just hours after China’s top legislative body imposed a drastic overhaul of Hong Kong’s political system, sparking anxiety over its international reputation as a banking and financial hub where people are assured of their civil liberties and political rights.

But even as they stressed Hong Kong’s undiminished role in the mainland’s development, the Chinese experts also pointed to the city’s shortcomings, in economic structure, soaring living costs and policy execution. They urged the Hong Kong government to tackle this litany of woes to remain competitive in attracting talent from around the world.

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The speakers were taking part in a high-powered webinar on Tuesday organised by the Chinese Association for Hong Kong and Macau Studies, the Hong Kong Coalition, and the One Country Two Systems Research Institute, on “the strategic planning of China’s 14th five-year plan and Hong Kong opportunities”.

Under the latest five-year plan, which was adopted by the National People’s Congress on March 11, authorities must safeguard national security in Hong Kong and Macau, and guard against external forces from interfering with the country’s affairs.

Beijing will also support Hong Kong in reinforcing its status as an international finance, shipping and trading centre, as well as encouraging the city to develop new roles, such as becoming a global hub for technological innovation, dispute resolution, and arts and cultural exchange.

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Speaking via video conferencing, Wang Zhigang, China’s minister of science and technology, pledged to support Hong Kong’s collaboration with the mainland in technological innovation.

“We will promote the technological exchange between Hong Kong and the mainland, and encourage Hong Kong’s young technological personnel to study on the mainland,” he said.

“Hong Kong’s technological forces are an important component in the country’s innovative system. They will play a key role in supporting the country … We will speed up the establishment of the Greater Bay Area as an international technological hub,” he added, in a reference to Beijing’s project to turn Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen and eight other Guangdong cities into an economic powerhouse rivalling Silicon Valley by 2035.

Xu Ze, president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies. Photo: Handout
Xu Ze, president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies. Photo: Handout

Xu Ze, president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, also said the city had great potential as long as it integrated into China’s development plans.

The former deputy director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office added that with Beijing’s imposition of the national security law last June, and the electoral reform on Tuesday, Hong Kong would be heading towards a brighter future.

“The central government implemented the Hong Kong national security law and improved the Hong Kong election system to eliminate the external forces’ interference,” he said.

“Some people say the Chinese government was silencing opposition, and stepping backwards in terms of democracy. That is ridiculous and pure nonsense. The fact is that ‘one country, two systems’ has not changed.”

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Xu argued that if anything needed to be changed in Hong Kong, it was that residents had to have a better understanding of Beijing’s “one country, two systems” governing framework.

Professor Liu Yuanchun, a vice-president of Renmin University of China, and one of the top economic advisers to the central leadership, said Hong Kong’s weaknesses did not only lie in the security and political fronts. The Hong Kong government had to work with the mainland’s technological industry, and further boost spending in research and development, if it wanted the city to be recognised as a global tech centre, he said.

“Hong Kong has several universities which were listed on the QS top 100 … but they do not have places like Stanford University, where they can truly nurture entirely new areas of innovation,” Liu said.

“We can also see the expenditure for technological research is insufficient. In 2018, the Hong Kong government’s expenditure for technological research accounted for 0.85 per cent of total GDP … But Shenzhen’s research budget is 4.2 per cent of its GDP.”

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Liu added that Hong Kong had to make good use of the opportunities as Beijing had increased its backing for the city’s technological development.

Lionel Ni Ming-shuan, provost and chair professor of computer science and engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, echoed Liu’s view that the city had to reflect on its shortcomings. For Ni, it was necessary for Hong Kong to up its game in attracting scientists from both the mainland and abroad, as well as removing red tape that hindered policy implementation.

“A lot of international scholars have moved to Hong Kong, and we have also gained the support of international scholars … but have these people created more value for Hong Kong?” he said.

“Hong Kong does not lack good plans, but it doesn’t execute well. Hong Kong should simplify its administrative procedures.”

Ni also said the city’s government had relied too much on foreign experts when it came to approving universities’ technological funding applications.

“To get [some government] grants … it is necessary to involve foreign experts and share the money with them. I don’t understand why we have to do this. Why not get mainland experts?” he said.

However, Charles Li Xiaojia, the former chief executive of the city’s stock exchange, argued there should not be too much focus placed on Hong Kong’s problems.

“With Hong Kong’s physical constraints, its housing issue, living costs and education, it is impossible to become a centre for the world’s tech talent, we cannot bring them all to Hong Kong,” he said.

“But that’s why we need ‘one country, two systems’ … We can use the strengths in our system, and the difference between the city and the mainland’s system, to attract capital and spread them from Hong Kong to the mainland’s technological centres.”

Li also said while Hong Kong’s direct, physical and quantitative impact on China’s GDP and economy could be small, the chemistry between the city and the mainland could unleash unlimited potential on the global stage.

“We must understand that Hong Kong’s direct influence in China’s economic development is limited. But in terms of representing China’s global standing, it has a lot of influence,” he said.

“So we must not just look at the physical, tangible and quantitative, because Hong Kong is too small. It’s easy for us to lose confidence. But if we look at the chemical, [intangible] and qualitative, the city can have a huge impact and make huge contributions to the country.”

Additional reporting by Cissy Zhou and Su-Lin Tan

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