Why Hongkongers couldn't care less about 'One Belt, One Road'

January 25, 2016 10:30
For Hong Kong companies, 'One Belt, One Road' is an opportunity but for many ordinary people, it's a meaningless slogan. Photo: Bloomberg

No part of the chief executive’s work report has provoked more comment and controversy than his plans for Hong Kong’s participation in the mainland’s "One Belt, One Road" project.

This was unveiled by President Xi Jinping in 2013, with routes across 64 countries in central Asia and the Middle East and from southeast Asia to Central Europe.

Since then, it has explained and discussed in thousands of speeches, seminars and research papers.

The main objective is to provide contracts for Chinese companies, especially state ones, in countries in these regions that need ports, roads, railways, power stations and other infrastructure but cannot afford them.

The project aims to match the needs of these countries with Chinese excess industrial capacity, labor and capital.

Many people here ask: So what has all this to do with Hong Kong, a city with almost no industry and no historical connections to most of these countries?

How many Hong Kong people have been to Kazakhstan, Iran or Bulgaria?

To many, CY Leung’s initiative has more to do with politics than economics.

It was politically correct to speak of Hong Kong’s plans, including a committee headed by himself.

The project, along with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, is the most important foreign policy initiative of the Xi era.

As China’s international finance center, Hong Kong must associate itself with the project.

In the past two years, Beijing has had many reasons to be angry with Hong Kong – Occupy Central, protests against mainland visitors, calls for independence and the failure to pass its 2017 election reform.

Leung needs to show his loyalty to Beijing – more than ever if he wishes to run for a second term next year. His popularity rating has reached a historic low.

He can at least show that he is a faithful servant of the central government, if not of the Hong Kong people.

Can Hong Kong companies benefit in concrete terms?

“Underpinned by our superiority in standard testing and arbitration, Hong Kong can offer competent professional services for trade among Belt and Road countries,” said Eddie Li, president of the Chinese Manufacturers Association of Hong Kong.

He said the city enjoys a comparative advantage in services such as accounting, law, assessment of investment environment and risk, environmental consultation, architecture and engineering and also operation and management of railways, airports, harbors and electricity supply.

Bernard Chan, a member of the Executive Council, said the main opportunities for Hong Kong "lie in intermediary and business services. That means using our expertise in helping put together cross-border deals and providing legal, accounting and other services”.

A global investment trends report issued by UNCTAD last Wednesday showed the importance of Hong Kong.

In 2015, it was the second largest recipient of foreign direct investment in the world, with US$163 billion, a record; first was the US with US$384 billion.

China ranked third with US$136 billion.

For Hong Kong companies, there will certainly be opportunities in "One Belt, One Road".

Given its political importance and billions of yuan Beijing is spending, they should actively associate themselves with it.

But it is a different story for ordinary people who see the project as remote and having no link to them.

They have never been to most of the 64 countries of the project and know nothing about them.

They do not want to invest in Uzbekhistan, Iran or Romania, nor do they even want to go there on holiday -- if they can obtain a visa.

Many are skeptical of the grand slogans of communist leaders.

What was the meaning of “The Three Representatives” of Jiang Zemin and “the Harmonious Society” of Hu Jintao?

During Hu’s 10 years in power, the wealth gap in mainland China continued to widen and the number of mass protests increased every year.

These projects seemed to have no connection to reality.

In recent years, the public has seen Hong Kong’s economic ties with the mainland decline from an enormous manufacturing presence in the Pearl River Delta into a shopping mecca for milk powder, gold jewellery and cosmetics and a financial centre, where mainland firms can raise money and offshore renminbi are traded.

They would rather see CY spend time and resources on improving the conditions of those who live in tiny cubicles, making housing more affordable for the middle class and creating more facilities for the elderly.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.