China plans to make Shenzhen a 'better place' than Hong Kong

Activists cleaning an information board at Sham Shui Po MTR station in Hong Kong yesterday. Last week, police used tear gas to disperse protesters near the station. Weeks of protests have plunged Hong Kong into a crisis. PHOTO: EPA-EFE Protesters at
Protesters at Victoria Park in Hong Kong on Sunday, before streaming onto major thoroughfares towards the city’s financial centre. The timing of the policy document to boost Shenzhen’s development coincided with the 11th week of demonstrations in Hong Kong – the biggest challenge to China’s rule of the city since its 1997 handover from Britain.PHOTO: NYTIMES
Activists cleaning an information board at Sham Shui Po MTR station in Hong Kong yesterday. Last week, police used tear gas to disperse protesters near the station. Weeks of protests have plunged Hong Kong into a crisis. PHOTO: EPA-EFE Protesters at
Activists cleaning an information board at Sham Shui Po MTR station in Hong Kong yesterday. Last week, police used tear gas to disperse protesters near the station. Weeks of protests have plunged Hong Kong into a crisis.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Beijing frames HK crisis as chance for Shenzhen's development, with better integration with HK, Macau

BEIJING • China's government has unveiled plans to boost the mainland city of Shenzhen and make it into what state media called a "better place" than neighbouring Hong Kong, following another huge pro-democracy rally in the financial hub.

Weeks of rallies, demonstrations, and occupations have plunged Hong Kong into crisis - which Beijing is now framing as an opportunity for Shenzhen's development.

Yesterday, the state-run media outlined a set of guidelines released by the central Chinese government that aims to turn Shenzhen into a pilot area of "socialism with Chinese characteristics".

Without giving much specific details, the policy document included goals such as transforming Shenzhen's "economic strength and development quality" into one of the best in the world by 2025.

It also outlined an intention to build greater integration with Hong Kong and Macau.

By 2035, the southern Chinese city will "lead the world" in overall economic competitiveness, the document said.

But Hong Kong is at risk of falling behind, hinted the nationalist state-run Global Times, citing experts.

"If Hong Kong is still not ready to embrace opportunities to join the country's development... the city's development would be 'very limited in the future, while Shenzhen is running at a much faster speed'," said Beihang University's Professor Tian Feilong, speaking to the Global Times.

Shenzhen's gross domestic product was behind that of Hong Kong last year, according to end-of-year exchange rates, but grew at a faster 7.6 per cent clip year on year to 2.4 trillion yuan (S$471.8 billion).

Hong Kong's economy clocked in at HK$2.8 trillion (S$494.7 billion) last year, but at a slower 3 per cent growth rate.

 
 
 
 

The timing of the policy document, published on Sunday, coincided with the 11th week of demonstrations in Hong Kong - the biggest challenge to China's rule of the semi-autonomous city since its 1997 handover from Britain.

Initially triggered by opposition to a planned extradition law, the protests have evolved into a wider movement for democratic reforms.

The former British colony operates under a "one country, two systems" framework, which gives citizens rights unseen on the mainland, such as freedom of speech.

Across the border, Shenzhen sits behind the country's "Great Firewall", which restricts access to news and information, but has risen to become a symbol of the transformative reforms China launched 40 years ago.

The policy document said that individuals who are from Hong Kong and Macau but work and live in Shenzhen would be treated as residents.

The guidelines also support creating a "more open and convenient" entry and exit system at its borders, and allowing foreign permanent residents to launch science and technology enterprises - potentially trying to encroach on Hong Kong's territory as an easy place for international businesses to be based.

After it was given Special Economic Zone status, Shenzhen transformed from a sleepy fishing village to a technological juggernaut.

The city is already a key part of Beijing's Greater Bay Area policy, which plans for greater integration between Hong Kong, Macau and mainland Guangdong province, where Shenzhen sits.

But experts expressed doubt on how easy integration would be.

"Because of the ongoing political crisis, China is increasing inspections at the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, and that undermines this grand integration projection," said Mr Ben Bland, director of the South-east Asia project at the Lowy Institute.

According to Sunday's policy document, Beijing is keen to pull the three regions even closer - "enriching" the practice of one country, two systems and "continuously enhancing the sense of identity and cohesiveness of Hong Kong and Macau compatriots" via cross-border cultural activities.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2019, with the headline 'China plans to make Shenzhen a 'better place' than Hong Kong'. Print Edition | Subscribe