One could be forgiven for not knowing what the “Greater Bay Area” entails despite much publicity surrounding Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s visit to Guangdong last month. Most explanations are not very convincing. They revolve around vague descriptions of building a “competitive region” akin to bay areas in New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo, and offering greater integration to “avoid vicious competition” and harness Hong Kong’s prowess as an international financial hub.
These calls for cooperation between Hong Kong and the Pearl Delta Region are nothing new. Once in a while, almost every Guangdong governor would come up with a vision for a “mega-metropolis”, and it would eventually fade away without any substantial achievements.
The current plan is nothing special. It first appeared in a joint study among authorities in Hong Kong, Macau and other Pearl Delta cities in 2011, when lawmakers at the time grumbled about a lack of consultation. Similar complaints could be heard again earlier this year, before Leung led a high-profile delegation to Guangdong shortly after Vice-Premier Li Keqiang endorsed plans to revive the Greater Bay Area concept. Leung vowed to draw up draft proposals within two weeks, despite admitting that he did not have any concrete ideas, and suggested harnessing our strength in legal, engineering and tax-related services.
Hong Kong is different from Chinese cities, because we have a capitalist economy with minimal governmental interference. Unlike decrees from President Xi Jinping, ambitious plans by our chief executive to develop a specific sector cannot circumvent existing laws and regulations.
Any attempt to facilitate the flow of capital and labour within the region would inevitably raise concerns over our “one country, two systems” principle. Given the opposition to most cross-border initiatives in recent years, such as the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge and the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong high-speed rail link, it would be unwise to commit to any projects without properly consulting the people or alleviating their concerns.
Among the most pressing would be a surge in housing prices – with a large influx of mainland talent and companies, what would happen to the already skyrocketing property market?
More importantly, it is not the first time our government has announced plans out of the blue, and found itself bearing the brunt of harsh criticism. For example, Leung came under heavy fire after surprising Hongkongers in his final policy address in January with a plan to demolish the Wan Chai Sports Ground.
The Greater Bay Area project could be boiled down to three questions. Why the haste to launch the scheme? Can we safeguard our autonomy in the process? Can Hong Kong evade the possible negative effects while benefitting from the integration scheme? There’s a long way to go before any satisfactory answers can be provided, but at the moment, the project offers little more than empty promises, or worse, a threat to Hong Kong’s autonomy.