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Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator Frank Ching.
Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator Frank Ching.

Frank Ching

Why Hong Kong's getting with the five-year plan Add to ...

When Hong Kong was returned to China on July 1, 1997, there was much anxiety about whether the city would continue to prosper and enjoy British-style rights and freedoms under the formula of "one country, two systems."

After 121/2 years, a quarter of the time allotted to Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region, much has changed.

To be sure, the rights and freedoms remain. Demonstrations against the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 continue to be held every June 4. This year, an estimated 150,000 people attended a vigil where speakers called for Chinese officials to be held accountable.

And Hong Kong is as eager as ever to achieve full democracy, which Britain never allowed. China has now promised that Hong Kong's chief executive can be elected by universal suffrage in 2017 and the entire Legislative Council in 2020, although many are skeptical about how fair the elections will be. Currently, half the legislature is chosen by universal suffrage, with the other members elected through a more limited franchise.

But it is on the economic side that things have changed most.

Before 1997, the people of Hong Kong generally looked down on mainlanders as bumpkins. Today, mainland tourists are welcomed and the Chinese renminbi is widely accepted. Indeed, while many used to want to keep the mainland at arm's length, many of the same people are now working hard to integrate Hong Kong into the mainland economy, fearful that this city of seven million people might be marginalized as others boom.

When China announced earlier this year that Shanghai is to become an international financial centre by 2020, fear was palpable in Hong Kong. While the local government made reassuring sounds about China being a big country that can accommodate two financial centres, many were not convinced. Hong Kong's days as an international financial centre were numbered, they felt.

It's not the first time the capitalist city has sought reassurance about its future. Hong Kong was not traditionally included in China's five-year plans, but the 2006-2010 plan does contain a short paragraph saying the central government supports the city's status as an international financial, trade and logistics centre. It's not widely known, but that was written in Hong Kong and included in the plan as a favour.

Now, Hong Kong is asking for a seat at the table when the next five-year plan is drawn up. It wants to be heard on all decisions affecting the city.

Beijing hasn't done anything overt to downgrade Hong Kong. In fact, it clearly wants to help the city succeed. When foreign tourists stopped coming during the Asian financial crisis, Beijing allowed large numbers of mainland tourists to visit Hong Kong and bolster its economy. Now, mainland tourists exceed those from all other countries combined.

But as China develops, its need for Hong Kong inevitably diminishes. Goods that used to be sent there for re-export can now be sent abroad directly. Hong Kong's container throughput used to be first in the world; now it is behind Singapore and Shanghai, and Shenzhen and Guangzhou are expected to overtake it soon.

The thaw in cross-strait relations also means that travel and trade between the mainland and Taiwan no longer has to pass through Hong Kong. Indeed, as China improves its relations with many other parts of the world, the city's gateway role diminishes.

Hong Kong still has advantages, such as its large body of professionals, including lawyers and accountants. There is confidence in its rule of law, its independent judiciary and its relative lack of corruption. These are important, but foreign companies are still flocking to the mainland.

And so, Hong Kong has learned that if it is to keep growing, it must make itself relevant to China's growth. That accounts for the eagerness to be part of the next plan.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer.

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