Hong Kong has been established as a free port and a free market economy since it became a British colony. Over the past 100-plus years, this has not changed, although the territory has passed from the hands of the British colonialists back to China. More recently, the city has proclaimed itself as “Asia’s World City”. Its openness and free trade have assumed a global scale and significance.
However, to the surprise of many in and outside Hong Kong, there has emerged lately a growing sense of exclusiveness and closed door mentality in some quarters of local society. A few years ago, the opposition to the construction of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong high speed railway showed hostility towards the mainland. One of the arguments against the high speed rail link with the Pearl River Delta region was that Hong Kong should not be connected with the mainland so much and so easily under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle, apparently emphasizing “Two Systems” over “One Country” implying that economic integration was neither necessary nor desirable.
In the last few days when the central government announced an expansion of the individual visit scheme and the extension of the annual multiple entry visa to non-permanent residents of Shenzhen, the hostility of some people in Hong Kong towards the mainland found a new target, and many started publicly to complain against the new measures. With the coming election for the local legislature, many candidates from both left and right have joined in, to call for a halt to the new measures. Some even go so far as to question the political intention of the new measures, using the word “assimilation” to evoke fears for “mainlandization” in Hong Kong.
CE CY Leung, apparently feeling the pressure, has promised to keep the number of arrivals under the individual visit scheme manageable. Local protectionism and exclusivity seem to have become rather fashionable in political rhetoric these days, as “democratic” parties scream for public protest against the new measures.
Of course, there have been arguments that the infrastructure and service sectors of Hong Kong may not be able to meet the demands of the tens of millions of tourists from the mainland as a result of the individual visit scheme upgrade. A careful look at neighboring cities should prove these worries are unwarranted. For example, the much smaller city of Macao now receives more mainland tourists than Hong Kong does. In 2011, Guangzhou received 45 million overnight visitors, far more than the 30 million plus overnight and day trip visitors to Hong Kong. Shanghai now receives more than 100 million visitors from outside the city a year. It is true that the number of visitors to Hong Kong is large, but since other cities can easily accommodate them, I do not believe as “Asia’s World City” Hong Kong could not support such a scale of tourism or that it needs to control the number of incoming visitors. The discrimination against mainland visitors, not visitors from the US or other foreign countries, reveals the politcal bias of the opponents.
The LegCo election campaigning may be a factor in the public rallying of politicians and political parties against the visitor’s scheme. The fact that in a few days the opposition has gathered such momentum may unearth a deeper political sentiment in the local society, that of a distrust of the central government and hostility towards mainlanders. The refugee background of many members of the local immigrant society and the decades of effective colonial education and propaganda are considered two important reasons for the political hostility. It might not be easy for some Hongkongers to abandon their political hostility toward the mainland. A proper and politically-neutral national education should help in the long term.
The SAR government, however, should be able to adopt measures to avoid any ill effects of the individual visit scheme on local society. There should be more public infrastructural projects to improve cross boundary and local transports to reduce the impact of the massive number of incoming tourists on the local transport system. At Lo Wu and Lok Ma Chau and at the new towns along the East Rail like Sheung Shui and Fanling and even Taipo, there should be development of more retail space to receive the visitors from Shenzhen that may also be able to reduce the pressure on the central business districts on the Island and in Kowloon. More hotels, of different grades, should be built. The government should also work with the retail industry to smooth the distribution bottlenecks that sometimes create shortage of supplies in some goods not only for visitors but also for local residents.
As “Asia’s World City”, Hong Kong should insist on its free trade and free port openness. It should not discriminate against tourists and visitors from any source. Political bias and misunderstanding are difficult to avoid, but the government and in particular the Chief Executive and local politicians should set the example of cosmopolitanism for the whole society. Without this cosmopolitanism and cultural-social tolerance, Hong Kong cannot live up to the “Asia’s World City” billing.
The author is head of China Business Centre, Hong Kong Polytechnic University.