Hong Kong’s role in GBA: keep calm and carry on

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has received a bag of 16 goodies from her bosses in Beijing related to Hong Kong’s role within the Greater Bay Area. And the city’s role, in case anyone was wondering, is “completely unchanged”, she says.

The shiniest of these gifts from the central government is a complete relaxation on restrictions for Hong Kong residents to buy apartments in the nine Guangdong cities of the GBA.

Supposedly.

Others are related to recognition of professional qualifications, scientific exchanges, healthcare, education, and various technical changes specific to certain industries. There seems to be a bunch of incentives for lawyers and construction industry workers, while details related to the insurance industry are far too arcane to mention here.

We are not going to list out all the measures. They were clearly drawn up by bureaucrats, and most require specific industry expertise to appreciate. Laymen might be relieved to hear that they can get their kids into mainland schools, or even that they can check into certain Hong Kong-funded mainland hospitals to get drugs approved in Hong Kong, but below that level of detail, you would need to be an industry insider to appreciate what Lam’s bag contains.

Sadly, yet unsurprisingly, these gifts are highly unlikely to be received well by their intended audience. As Shih Wing-ching, founder of the city’s biggest property agency, told the SCMP: “I’ve observed that not many Hongkongers would want to work and live on the mainland. It is also a reality that many youngsters share an anti-China sentiment.”

That sentiment might not need to be shared in order to understand and recognize it. Lam clearly is struggling to. This is evident in how little time she has spent since her Policy Address drilling into details of how the Land Resumption Ordinance will be used to build a brighter future for people currently living in subdivided apartments. Instead, she comes away from a meeting in Beijing, with the country’s most powerful officials, with this.

Putting aside the mismatch between expectations and delivery, Lam’s 16 gifts are not all that great, to be frank. Like much of the stuff that will soon be filling Christmas stockings, they lose their lustre the more one plays with them. They hardly can be considered to have given a “fresh push” to GBA integration.

Take the housing initiative. As Lam admits herself, not all of the existing restrictions facing Hongkongers in buying GBA homes are going to be removed. She lists those that are easy to remove, but not those that can still be used to create an effective barrier to entry. Every local government has leeway in setting these policies to suit local conditions.

It is understandable why such barriers exist, as these municipalities have conflicting priorities. Getting real for a moment, does Shenzhen want wealthy Hongkongers coming in and absorbing its low-cost housing supply? Does Guangzhou? These two cities want talent, not just anyone. For those who qualify, incentives are already plentiful: they include free apartments (in some cases for their parents, not only the applicants), tax equalization, and straightforward cash-in-the-pocket grants. For anyone else, well, it is highly unlikely they will be shown a welcome mat, no matter what Beijing says.

Looking at the cheaper places, it doesn’t get much easier, either. Jiangmen might be opening to Hongkongers (and this was happening before Lam went to Beijing), but Jiangmen is a long way from Hong Kong – at least until the next cross-bay railway is finished in four years’ time. Zhongshan, meanwhile, has already seen a flood of Hong Kong buyers this year, as has Foshan. In both, the incoming hordes drove up prices to the point that the two cities ended up on Beijing’s watchlist for cooling measures. Are Zhongshan and Foshan now going to be flinging open their doors wider to Hongkongers? Not likely soon.

Then there are measures that might sound great, but make little practical difference. For instance, foreigners with permanent ID cards can now apply for special permits allowing unlimited travel for a number of years within the GBA. Seriously? A three-year multiple-entry visa currently requires no more than a passport photo and five minutes spent filling in forms at a branch of the China Travel Service.

Sadly, there was no mention of some really important issues that need to be tackled through coordinated efforts among the GBA’s three jurisdictions. How to get GBA-wide insurance policies; how to get cars flowing freely from Hong Kong and Macau into Guangdong; how to standardize policies on payment platforms; how to set up GBA arbitration centers; how to share information in fighting cross-border commercial crime. These are tough to get done, admittedly, but these are what progress is most needed on. And this kind of progress needs dedication and commitment, not occasional get-togethers in Beijing.

There are so many great things that can come out of greater GBA integration. Hong Kong can play a pioneering role in connecting the GBA’s cash-starved tech startups to a wider range of international financing options. In turn, it can integrate best practices from mainland cities in Hong Kong related to traffic management, online filing of government applications, and a range of other activities that are currently done here with signatures on pieces of paper. But to get to this kind of progress, effort needs to be expended and heads need to be knocked together.

Perhaps that will all come next Christmas. Stay tuned.

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