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World Perspective | Economy

A Territory's Struggle to Bond With Mainland

Studies indicate a need for integration. But Hong Kongers' unflattering view of their cousins and a 'one country, two systems' policy deepen the gulf.

April 27, 2001|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HONG KONG — Nearly four years after Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty, there's a growing belief that if the territory is to remain one of Asia's premier financial and commercial centers, it must integrate economically with its neighbor on the mainland, the Pearl River Delta.

The question is how.

Under the formula known as "one country, two systems," Hong Kong has preserved its democratic freedoms, its rule of law and other advantages. But that same formula has complicated the territory's contacts with neighboring areas on mainland China.

For instance, strict residence requirements exclude most non-Hong Kong Chinese from resettling here, and the tightly controlled border with the mainland closes at 11:30 each night and stays closed until 6:30 the next morning.

And then there's the Hong Kong mind-set.

Powerful voices in the territory have warned against deepening links. One example: Influential property barons here see economic integration with less affluent surrounding areas as a potential threat to the sky-high apartment prices in Hong Kong that lie at the heart of their fortunes.

In addition, surveys indicate that residents of the former British colony show little enthusiasm for integration. The latest test of these sentiments, taken earlier this month, found that barely half of those questioned favored opening the border with the mainland around the clock.

In the same poll, almost half the respondents said they opposed steps to encourage mainland professionals to resettle in Hong Kong.

Michael DeGolyer, director of the Hong Kong Transition Project, which conducted the survey, said the territory's residents tend to look down on their mainland cousins--a habit that has gained Hong Kongers a reputation for being arrogant.

The attitudes deepen existing divisions.

It was amid this atmosphere that a group of local businesspeople this week unveiled a study restating the necessity for Hong Kong to forge better links with the Pearl River Delta--a diverse region of 28 million people that includes the former Portuguese colony of Macao and the cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

"Hong Kong has a great need to think of itself not as an enclave but as part of a larger region," said the study's main sponsor, Victor Fung, who heads a large regional trading company and also serves as chairman of the Hong Kong Airport Authority. "Much of the future depends on our ability to integrate economically with the Pearl River Delta."

The study, by a team of internationally recognized urban planners, sets out two pessimistic scenarios in which the region's main urban areas either ignore each other or actively compete against each other as they grow and develop.

A third scenario envisions a Pearl River Delta regional planning agency and better cooperation, leading to cleaner air and water, more efficient transportation links and a better quality of life for the region.

The sponsors stressed that, despite the study's obvious tilt in favor of integration, they weren't trying to present solutions but to frame a debate that they believe is badly needed. The only sacred cow, Fung said, is Hong Kong's separate political system. All else, the sponsors said, was open to discussion.

"We don't want to close doors--we want to open them," said Marjorie Yang, who heads a group of textile and apparel companies that have production facilities on the mainland. She said the business group plans to launch a Web site that will contain other reports and academic studies published on the same subject.

Fung said one of the next steps is to generate interest in the Delta's cities. The Delta lacks a strong private business community, he said, so he has been talking with local mayors, the ones he described as the "real entrepreneurs."

"We've talked continuously with them," Fung said. "I'm also hoping to do conferences on the other side of the border."

Whether he succeeds remains unclear, but analysts agree that it won't be easy.

"It's going to be a real challenge," DeGolyer said, "to change these attitudes, to bridge the gap."

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