Dock of the Bay

The plan to link nine cities in Guangdong Province with the Hong Kong and Macao special administrative regions to form a "Greater Bay Area" (GBA) is an ambitious one. The intention is to create an economic powerhouse on a scale to match San Francisco and Tokyo, with technological development at its core.

Already some professional firms have highlighted potential problems in terms of matching the different economies with their distinctive cultures, political sensitivities and legal systems. In the latter area alone there are three widely varying practices: common law in Hong Kong, and Portuguese law in Macao, are both very different from the mainland system. Which should govern contracts? How will contract disputes be settled and intellectual property rights protected?

All these are legitimate questions which will take a concerted effort and much painstaking work to settle.

Whether or not the plan succeeds will to a large extent depend on the attitude of young people on both sides of the boundaries. The physical infrastructure and legal and other issues can be tackled by older hands, but the imagination and creativity necessary to develop cutting edge technology is mainly a young person’s game. In this context, it was discouraging to see that a majority of young Hongkongers surveyed recently had little or no interest in exploring opportunities to the north.

Changing such attitudes will take time. Creating an integrated bay area will require free movement of people, money and information. Perhaps we can start by examining some of the basic practical obstacles that exist at the moment, and try to eliminate them.

The present land crossing arrangements at Lok Ma Chau, for example, are clumsy: there are several bus routes from different points in the SAR to the exit control building. After immigration, passengers must get back on the same bus for a separate journey to the mainland entry control building. The process is similarly awkward in reverse. Surely this can be simplified, and done under one roof so that one bus journey in each direction can be eliminated?

There is a choice of travel modes, including train, bus and jetfoil. The fares might be reasonable for the occasional visit, but there would need to be heavily discounted monthly passes for regular commuters or frequent movements would be stifled.

Phone services are one area where there could be friction. Guangdong, Macao and Hong Kong all have different international codes so as soon as travelers move out of their own jurisdiction they become liable for roaming charges. Depending on the service provider and basic package bought, these can be steep which would act as a deterrent to free movement. Could the GBA follow the example of the EU and arrange to scrap roaming charges?

On a recent visit to Shenzhen, I noticed that cash transactions have virtually disappeared, pretty much everything – restaurants, shops, taxis etc – is settled by WeChat Pay. That could have been a problem for visitors from Hong Kong because until recently they would have needed a mainland bank account which requires a local address. Fortunately that problem was eliminated last month when WeChat Pay services were extended so that Hong Kong citizens are now able to pay in the mainland using their Hong Kong dollar accounts.

The internet is another potential problem area. Hong Kong people – and the international talent the GBA hopes to attract – are accustomed to totally unrestricted access. They won’t settle or work on a long term basis without access to Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and various other websites which are blocked by the great Chinese firewall. Many Hong Kong people have both WhatsApp and WeChat on their mobile phone. No problem for WeChat anywhere, but WhatsApp on the mainland is not readily accessible. The use of Virtual Private Networks could get round the problem, but there is an ongoing clampdown on VPNs. Will the authorities be prepared to exempt the GBA? That would certainly be a bold decision, but so was the decision to develop the bay area in the first place.

The only way forward if that curtain is not lifted may be for all the really important stuff to be done in Hong Kong.

Two important items of physical infrastructure opened recently and both will play an important role in future development. Critics of the Hong Kong/Zhuhai/Macao bridge said it had been badly engineered and would get washed away. And nobody would use it anyway. They must be feeling pretty stupid after the combined bridge and tunnel withstood the most powerful typhoon to strike us in recent memory, and the hordes of people flocking to use it have created crowd problems in Tung Chung. When the first flush of excitement passes, no doubt that situation will gradually ease.

The high speed rail has its critics too, and from the construction and cost overrun perspective I’m with them. But the point about initial low patronage will in due course also fix itself, especially when the link to Guangzhou South is extended to downtown, and the existing service to Guangzhou East via East Rail is phased out as it surely will be.

That is the thing about infrastructure: once built and in use it develops both in anticipated ways and in unexpected ones, because it makes possible things that nobody thought about before.