SCMP Tuesday, May 1, 2001

Links with mainland will not jeopardize our global links

So Anson Chan Fang On-sang has finally laid it out in the open. In her final speech before her retirement, the former chief secretary for administration revealed her opposition to a closer relationship with our neighbours across the border and even went so far as to caution the community against looking "towards the mainland at the expense of our traditional links with the rest of the world".
"Some are so concerned about integration that they seem to forget that our strength lies in the separation, which is fundamental to the success of 'one country, two systems'," Mrs Chan said, in her address to the Asia Society on April 19.
She illustrated her point by citing as an example the declining standard of English in Hong Kong: "Our ability to communicate in the international language of business was one of the factors that always gave us an edge over our rivals. We blunt that edge at our peril." But while this is true, and a cause of great concern for the community, it is questionable whether this has really been caused by Hong Kong people becoming more inward looking since the handover and the push to integrate with the mainland.
But at least her argument is now out in the open, where the community can dissect, analyse and debate it. We have to face the fact that, while it might seem obvious to a lot of people that closer links with the mainland are essential to Hong Kong's future development, and perhaps even survival, there is nonetheless stiff opposition to them from some elements within our community, including those in the highest decision-making and executive levels of our government.
Such strong resistance to closer integration with the mainland covers everything from longer opening hours for border checkpoints to higher proficiency in Putonghua. All of these are seen as damaging the separateness of Hong Kong from the mainland, compromising our own system and being detrimental to the policy of "one country, two systems".
Two further arguments against closer integration with the mainland come in the form of its effect upon our property market and under-achieving retail sector. Any relaxation of border crossing hours or procedures only makes it easier for Hong Kong people to spend their hard-earned money on the mainland instead of at home.
The past few years have already seen a remarkable jump in the number of Hong Kong people buying houses in the Pearl River Delta and particularly in Shenzhen. According to one estimate, such purchases amounted to five to six thousand units in Shenzhen alone last year, which is roughly equivalent to 10 per cent of the annual supply of new flats in Hong Kong.
The Government has just published an in-depth study on Hong Kong people's spending on the mainland, the first of its kind, which shows we made more than 50 million trips and spent $30 billion dollars on the other side of the border last year.
A porous border would only add to this drain, to the detriment of our property market and domestic retail sales. These are genuine, rather than political, concerns. Even the most pragmatic property developer, who has no reservations about a more porous border, would hesitate to support the introduction of 24-hour border crossing, at least in the short term. They argue they need more time to adjust to this new trend of people buying holiday or retirement houses in Guangdong province instead of trading up to better flats in Hong Kong, so taking away a substantial demand from the local property market.
The retail trade's arguments are more difficult to substantiate but still draw widespread sympathy. Namely, that the drastic decline in retail sales, as well as spending on food and entertainment over the past few years, has put a lot of shops, restaurants and night spots out of business. Even if cross-border spending was not the primary cause of this, it certainly did not help the situation.
Nonetheless, the key question is what is the best way to get Hong Kong out of the hole we seem to have fallen into? And the answer surely cannot be by encircling ourselves and trying to mend the fences dividing us from the outside. After all, Hong Kong has never thrived on protectionism and nor can we survive on just guarding our own turf.
We might have been successful in the past in linking up with the outside world while building a great wall to divide us from the mainland. But it is questionable whether this would still work today.
Now, should it be supposed that opening up to the mainland necessarily means closing down our link with the rest of the world, or that having a more porous border means there will no longer be any separation between us and the rest of China?
Shiu Sin-por is executive director of the One Country, Two Systems Research Institute.