21 July 2019
Hong Kong IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok (R), along with Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung (center), traveled to Silicon Valley recently to meet up with tech firms, startups and city officials there. Photo: Charles Mok
Hong Kong IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok (R), along with Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung (center), traveled to Silicon Valley recently to meet up with tech firms, startups and city officials there. Photo: Charles Mok

HK lawmaker urges Silicon Valley linkages to boost startups

Hong Kong authorities hope the city could be turned into an Asian Silicon Valley, as they step up spending on tech-related facilities and launch various programs to boost innovation and support a startup culture. But how realistic are the ambitions? And what needs to be done further if the territory is to achieve its goals? 

The Hong Kong Economic Journal met up with Charles Mok, a lawmaker representing the IT sector, to discuss these and related issues. Mok recently undertook a trip to Silicon Valley, along with Civic Party leader and fellow lawmaker Alvin Yeung, to learn about early-stage startups and the US tech ecosystem.

Excerpts from the interview:

HKEJ: Following your visit to Silicon Valley, the birthplace of tech giants like Google, HP, LinkedIn, Airbnb and many other cutting-edge firms, what are your impressions?

Mok: In the 40s to 50s of the last century, Silicon Valley was started with backing from the US military, as it was the base for the Department of Defense to develop technologies for military use, with a cluster for the aviation industry. They initially focused on development of semiconductor equipment, and then commercialized it to start the business.

And then, universities like Stanford and others set up research institutes to promote university-industry cooperation, and they attracted venture capital companies to gather in the area. Together, these elements formed the basis of Silicon Valley, helping it become the top global startup hub.

However, with a large number of companies entering the area, the San Francisco Bay Area has become one of the most expensive housing markets in America, and traffic congestion around the region has continued to reach new highs. Even if professionals are offered high pay, they currently find it difficult to buy a house in the area. This is prompting some people and firms to move elsewhere, though their business is based in the Silicon Valley.

Q: In recent years, the Hong Kong government has been pushing new initiatives to turn the city into a tech and startup hub in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area. How is Hong Kong’s technology development compared with that in Silicon Valley?

A: In the last few decades, city planners all over the world have tried to replicate the success of Silicon Valley with varying levels of success. Taking Beijing’s Zhongguancun and the London commuter belt as examples, they have different focuses in the development planning, and the results are not bad.

As for the development layout of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, it focuses on leveraging the population and economic advantage in the area. In the case of Silicon Valley, the place is committed to attracting high-tech talents and professionals with high education levels by offering generous packages and benefits.

Take Facebook as an example, its employees get average annual salary of US$200,000 (about HK$1.56 million), four months of maternity leave and other benefits.

Q: You have met city officials in the Silicon Valley during the trip. What is their level of awareness about the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area?

A: For some multinational companies based in Silicon Valley, they have operations in Hong Kong, and they have a certain understanding of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area. However, the city officials and some investors there don’t seem to be too clued into developments here. In contrast, they seem to know more about startup communities in places such as Singapore and Taiwan, as well as those in individual Chinese cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen.

It is worth noting that Shenzhen authorities have opened an office in Silicon Valley to promote connections and exchange of ideas and professionals between two places.

As for Hong Kong, we have the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in cities like San Francisco, London and New York. And we have the Hong Kong Trade Development Council and the InvestHK, responsible for overseas trade affairs. However, there is a lack of inter-departmental coordination among these government agencies, limiting the overall effort in promoting Hong Kong’s tech and startup sector.

Q: In recent years, global race in tech and innovation has been fiercely intensive. What advice do you have for the Hong Kong government?

A: The Professionals Guild, which consists of six lawmakers, including myself, from professional sectors has met with Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to submit a proposal on the city’s tech development, as she prepares for her policy address in October.

First of all, I suggested that the government should set up an “entrepreneurial innovation center” in Silicon Valley to bring Hong Kong-based tech firms to overseas market and promote connections and exchanges among the companies, talents and investors between the two places.

Second, we expressed concern that several policies from last year’s policy address, such as measures on opening up data to the industry, popular science education, STEM education, and talent training, have not yet been implemented.

In addition, we have seen Singapore is providing training programs on data science to civil servants, with an aim to facilitating the implementation of the city-state’s development plan in tech and innovation field.

I sincerely hope the Hong Kong government will provide data science training to local civil servants and personnel from the private sector, so as to promote innovation atmosphere in the city, and push forward the development of Hong Kong’s vision of becoming a technology-driven smart city.

The full article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 31

Translation by Ben Ng

[Chinese version 中文版]

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