24 October 2016
Hong Kong officials are missing the big picture on smart cities, as they've only focused on things like wifi services, observers say. Photo: HKEJ
Hong Kong officials are missing the big picture on smart cities, as they've only focused on things like wifi services, observers say. Photo: HKEJ

Why the China smart city partnership plan leaves us cold

In recent years, Hong Kong’s policy roadmap on various issues, be it aviation planning, high-speed railway or financial market development, has borne the footprints of Beijing authorities.

Now, the government wants to add one more field — Internet economy — for the close embrace with the mainland.

On Wednesday, the Leung Chun-ying administration agreed to enhance exchanges with China on the development of “smart cities”, which would involve deployment of Internet-related technologies to improve public services such as transport and healthcare.

The government did not provide details of the partnership, merely saying that “big data” will be used in policy formulation and improvement of public services.

The announcement has been met with skepticism from observers, who say it is doubtful if the initiative will lead to any significant increase in demand for IT-related services from local tech firms.

Going by the experience of other sectors, the so-called exchanges between Hong Kong and China could merely pave the way for Chinese technology firms to tap into the Hong Kong market.

That, in turn, raises concerns that mainland entities could gain control of sensitive personal information or data from Hong Kong.

Many industry observers feel the Hong Kong government doesn’t have a clear grasp on issues surrounding technology and Internet development. Lack of proper mindset, as well as the right professionals to oversee the sector, is seen as a major problem.

Leung and team appear to be moving in a knee-jerk fashion, rather than mapping out plans with broad public or professional consultation.  

Leung said the government’s Public Sector Information portal will make data sets available to the private sector for use in development of new products and applications.

But industry analysts point out that only 45 departments have been roped in to provide data for public reference, accounting for just 20 percent of all the government agencies.

Lack of data on some key things, such as real-time flood information, crime black spots or traffic statistics from some transport operators, will mean that firms seeking to explore new products and services will lack the big picture. 

Technology and Internet development in Hong Kong has been driven by local as well as foreign players in the past two decades.

Many Hong Kong firms built their reputation in the world riding on their own efforts, as well as the support of several government-sponsored bodies such as Hong Kong Science Park and Cyberport.

In the past, authorities offered help but refrained from pushing the industry toward a particular path or goals.

That is, however, changing now as the Leung administration is aligning its policies in line with Beijing’s economic interests.

For Chinese authorities, the Internet is a political tool aimed at keeping tabs on outsiders and controlling the flow of information at home. 

The closed environment is what has led to the dominance of players such as Tencent and Baidu, while global leaders have been virtually shut out in the market.

Hong Kong firms must embrace the mainland’s huge market but the city should also think beyond China.

Internet and technology development needs a free environment for incubation of new ideas, not government intervention and setting the direction as to what the industry should do.

This is something that the Leung regime should bear in mind.

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EJ Insight writer

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