SCMP Thursday, November 8, 2001

Begging to Beijing fuels our lack of confidence

It has been a shattering reversal of fortune. Hong Kong used to look down on the mainland as a poor cousin. The current moribund economy, however, has virtually brought the SAR to its knees. In a desperate bid to ease the financial plight, humbled Hong Kong is now begging its northern compatriot for help.
Senior officials have engaged in a concerted effort to lure residents to cross the border to look for greener pastures. They have not just encouraged employees to seek jobs on the mainland but also have egged employers on to invest there.
It is hard to find such government behaviour in other countries, in which a local administration would encourage enterprises, big and small, to invest their money elsewhere.
Despite their lip service to the concept of "one country, two systems", it is obvious that Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and his senior aides are already operating in a mindset of "one country, one system". They take it for granted that the mainland should take care of Hong Kong.
Paradoxically, when China joins the World Trade Organisation on Sunday, it has insisted on doing so as a developing nation. Hong Kong has outperformed the mainland in terms of gross domestic product and per-capita income. It does not really make sense that Hong Kong should be asking for favours and privileges from mainland authorities, such as benefits for Hong Kong investors in Beijing.
Hong Kong people are opportunists. Capitalists and workers alike, they will jump on any opportunity to make money. With or without official blessings, residents will be heading north in droves as soon as they smell cash. It is just a natural flow of human and financial capital.
What is really alarming is the Government's move to fuel the exodus. It amounts to an open admission of lack of confidence in the future of Hong Kong. No wonder provincial and other cadres are now in a position to deride the SAR.
In the past, Chinese functionaries used to greet Hong Kong visitors with open arms. After all, the tiny British colony accounted for half of the total foreign investments for the country.
In its new role as an SAR under the national flag, Hong Kong has been reduced to just a direct competitor with the many municipalities and provinces in China. We are now vying with other local authorities for a place as a financial, tourism, logistics and service hub of the nation.
The large number of Hong Kong people and entrepreneurs striving to gain a foothold in mainland markets are also at loggerheads with those trying to preserve their interests. All this has contributed to a drastic change of attitude towards Hong Kong.
At the recent East Asia Summit of the World Economic Forum in Hong Kong, Fang Xinghai, assistant president of the Shanghai Stock Exchange, opened fire on his hosts. He argued that, unlike Shanghai, the SAR did not enjoy good connections with Beijing, had a smaller economic hinterland and did not pay tax to the motherland. More Chinese cities would benefit from promoting Shanghai as the pre-eminent financial centre of China as it would raise the overall financial standards of the mainland, he added. Mr Fang's outburst has offered a rare window for a glimpse into the genuine mindset of those in power on the mainland.
Unfortunately, his assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the mainland and the SAR is reasonable. Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou would welcome Hong Kong visitors to spend, invest and buy real estate. Nonetheless, when it comes to competition, it is a different story.
Shenzhen Mayor Yu Youjun, on the other hand, was more polite. He said the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone would embrace compatriots from Hong Kong. This is understandable because Shenzhen has been a big winner. The number of Hong Kongers travelling to the neighbouring city to shop and seek entertainment has been rising. As a result, northern districts on this side of the border have practically been written off.
It must please Mr Yu to have this net inflow of money. The hi-tech and manufacturing industries in Shenzhen are way ahead of those in Hong Kong. Coupled with its low labour costs and cheap land, Shenzhen need not worry about Hong Kong catching up in these areas.
That explains why Mr Yu can afford to be more relaxed than Mr Fang. Yet Mr Yu also took the chance to express his dissatisfaction over the Hong Kong administration's reluctance to remove the remaining obstacles to a free exchange between the two places.
Premier Zhu Rongji has admonished the SAR Government for taking too long to deliberate on issues, and translating decisions into actions. Pursuing that theme, Mr Yu has reportedly criticised Hong Kong's decision-making process as too slow.
If Hong Kong keeps bending its knees for too long, it might lose its will to ever stand tall. Top officials, who have rejected the call for a 10 per cent pay cut, have been dwelling on the need for citizens to re-establish their self-confidence. Ironically, what they have been doing is counter-productive. Knocking from door to door on the mainland to request help is hardly conducive to re-igniting Hong Kong's fighting spirit.
The least the SAR Government can do is stop trumpeting the mainland's unlimited back-up for Hong Kong. Should the Government continue to pursue this "mainland as saviour" policy, it might spell the beginning of the end of the SAR. What we need now is a little dignity to rebuild on our strengths.
Albert Cheng King-hon ( ) is a broadcaster and publisher.