In the loop

Hong Kong’s plans for a tech park and a new museum come under fire


Shenzhen’s skyline, Hong Kong’s swamp – a real estate marriage made in heaven?

Before China’s economic reforms began in 1978, Shenzhen was a small village bordering the much larger metropolis of British-governed Hong Kong. According to Chen Bingan, the author of The Great Exodus to Hong Kong, millions of Chinese crossed the border illegally between the 1950s and 1970s in search of better lives in the British colony.

Send up a drone today to take aerial photos of the landscape straddling the border and you will see a reversal of the developmental picture of the 1970s. Shenzhen boasts a towering skyline. But on the Hong Kong side – an area known as Lok Ma Chau – there’s marshland and fish ponds (in the photo above the built-up area is entirely Shenzhen).

This apparent imbalance might finally be redressed after Hong Kong and Shenzhen signed a memorandum of understanding to build a giant science park in the undeveloped area. The Hong Kong-Shenzhen Innovation and Technology Park will be built on the Lok Ma Chau Loop: 87 hectares of wetland created in 1997 by works to shorten the course of the Shenzhen River, which largely defines the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border. The Loop originally sat in Shenzhen territory but the rerouting project put it on the opposite side of the river.

Hong Kong’s Singtao Daily reports that Shenzhen’s government has long taken the view that it still owns the land in the Loop. But under a deal brokered by the central government, the city is ready to make a major concession. In the agreement the land in the planned park will be designated as belonging to Hong Kong and activity there will be subject to the territory’s laws. However, a new company jointly owned by Shenzhen and Hong Kong will oversee the construction and management of the new park.

Shenzhen also plans to develop a supporting “technology and innovation zone” adjacent to the Loop. “If the two governments can work out a win-win situation, the tech park could turn out to be bigger than Silicon Valley,” an insider told Singtao Daily.

Hong Kong has watched enviously as its neighbour established a reputation as the ‘Silicon Valley of Hardware’ by specialising in networked manufacturing and product design. Hong Kong’s own skillset is mostly in financial services (although local officials like to highlight that DJI – a leading dronemaker based in Shenzhen – was set up by a mainlander who went to a Hong Kong university).

Projects such as the new park are envisaged as tightening the commercial ties across the border (a cross-border stock trading scheme opened between the two cities in December; see WiC349). But they also have a political undertone. Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam (until this week the city’s number two official) has said that the park epitomises Hong Kong’s faith in “One Country, Two Systems” (the constitutional principle under which Hong Kong is permitted its own political and legal system, but remains ultimately under Chinese sovereignty).

But others in the former colony worry about encroachment on their local rights, and regular WiC readers won’t be surprised to hear that the science park has already come under fire, because of Hong Kong’s febrile political mood.

Given the widespread anti-mainland sentiment in the city, some see the Loop as another plot to tighten Beijing’s grip. For instance, Lam’s suggestion that “business travel cards” could allow special access to the park has stoked concerns as to how Hong Kong will maintain proper border controls.

And Lam has been trying to weather a similar storm over a surprise deal to create a version of Beijing’s celebrated Palace Museum at a 42-hectare art and cultural complex on Hong Kong’s iconic harbour. The Chinese capital’s Palace Museum has more than 1.8 million items but less than 1% of the vast collection is on display at any one time. A permanent museum in Hong Kong could showpiece many of China’s national treasures. However local newspaper Apple Daily isn’t convinced, complaining that putting a new wing of the museum inside Hong Kong’s new cultural hub is a “de facto act of national education” (i.e. a propaganda initiative from the mainland government).

The HK$3.5 billion ($450 million) museum project was announced immediately after Lam’s trip to the Chinese capital last month, which also prompted speculation she’d run for Hong Kong’s top political job in March.

The election of the city’s ‘Chief Executive’ five years ago stood out as the most rancorous leadership battle since 1997 (see WiC144) and the winner Leung Chun-ying has suffered in the opinion polls as one of the least popular officials ever since. Seen by many of his critics as too ‘pro-Beijing’, he announced last month that he wouldn’t seek re-election for “family reasons”.

Sure enough, Lam quit her post as chief secretary and announced on Thursday her candidacy to become Hong Kong’s new leader .

(In fact, this election is shaping up to be as divisive as the one in 2012, with Lam now appearing to be Beijing’s favoured candidate.)

Meanwhile Lam has denied that the development plans are part of an effort to tighten political ties with Beijing, presenting them more as an opportunity for the territory’s youth.

“The Hong Kong Palace Museum and the innovation and technology park to be developed jointly by Hong Kong and Shenzhen at the Lok Ma Chau border were conceived and developed very much with young people in mind, because we want to give our young people diversified opportunities,” she told legislators.

Lam said that she wants to reduce the city’s over-reliance on the financial sector. “Not all of you need to go into banking, financial services and whatnot,” she told an audience of young graduates. “You have a future in innovation and technology, as well as cultural and creative industries.”

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