Hong Kong remains a driving force in the development of the Greater Bay Area and was not losing its competitiveness to neighbouring Shenzhen, according to mainland property mogul Bill Wong Cho-bau.
In the process of launching a new airline in Hong Kong, Wong is among those voicing optimism in what has become an ongoing debate over Beijing’s attitude to the city and whether its influence is waning.
Comments made by Chinese President Xi Jinping during last month’s celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of Shenzhen’s special economic zone sparked talk that the central government no longer valued Hong Kong’s role in its ambitious plans for the bay area.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
Wong, who was present when Xi spoke, dismissed such talk, and said there were “a lot of rumours”.
“What President Xi intended to do was to authorise more power to Shenzhen so as to reduce the existing constraints, like [getting approvals] from various central authorities when the two cities collaborate.
“It’s more like decentralisation, like you two can discuss on your own and it is not necessary to discuss the policies with Beijing, which often takes much longer.”
The bay area comprises Hong Kong, Macau and nine cities in Guangdong province with a combined population of 71.2 million. Beijing is seeking to transform the region into a high-technology powerhouse to rival Silicon Valley by 2035.
Wong spoke to the Post in his first official interview since news recently broke of his ambitions in the aviation industry, with the launch of an airline serving the region.
In his speech last month, Xi hailed Shenzhen as an “important engine” of development for the bay area, reigniting fears Hong Kong’s role could be diminishing.
He made specific reference to the Qianhai development zone, the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Innovation and Technology Park in the Lok Ma Chau loop in northern Hong Kong, and the Guangdong-Macau cooperation zone in Hengqin, Zhuhai, as he urged the relevant authorities to accelerate their progress.
He also encouraged more young Hongkongers to work, study and live on the mainland.
But Wong noted that Xi mentioned both Hong Kong and Shenzhen as engines of the bay area. “Some Hongkongers have interpreted his idea wrongly,” he said.
“Xi said Shenzhen is the main engine for changes, but I believe Hong Kong is also an engine in the bay area,” he said. “Shenzhen is just one river away from Hong Kong.”
Referring to his decision to start a new airline in Hong Kong in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has devastated the global aviation industry, he said: “Why would I have confidence in Hong Kong? It’s because Hong Kong is an engine too.”
Though better known for his property development across the border, he also founded Shenzhen-based Donghai Airline back in 2002.
Wong, a Hong Kong resident, has also served as a national committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s top political advisory body, since 2003.
Xi’s authorisation of more power to Shenzhen, he said, was a way to support Hong Kong more vigorously.
At the Lok Ma Chau loop near the border of the two cities, for example, Shenzhen was now empowered to discuss land ownership and management issues directly with Hong Kong.
The 87-hectare area was part of Shenzhen until the late 1990s, when some engineering work to straighten the Shenzhen river resulted in a parcel of land falling within Hong Kong’s border and becoming inaccessible from the mainland side.
It was not until 2017 that both governments signed an agreement to develop a Hong Kong-Shenzhen Innovation and Technology Park there together.
Wong said if the Shenzhen government agreed, Hong Kong could take over the loop.
“These are some areas the two governments can discuss,” he said.
For decades, both cities have been plagued by a shortage of land. While the Hong Kong government’s plans to boost land supply have been stalled for years, Beijing has taken a more active role in solving the problem for Shenzhen.
In the central government’s latest five-year plan, the Shenzhen government has been empowered to convert agricultural land for new uses, something analysts believe will help ease development problems in the city’s urban villages.
Wong said Hong Kong does not need to ask for extra land as long as it makes better use of its own private farmland and green buffer areas.
He said the city government was “always afraid of legal challenges, and that’s what hinders Hong Kong’s development”.
More from South China Morning Post:
This article Hong Kong not being eclipsed by Shenzhen in Greater Bay Area plan, mainland mogul Bill Wong says first appeared on South China Morning Post