HONG KONG — Lately there have been snarky voices and Internet taunting directed at Hong Kong. This mostly comes from Chinese mainlanders declaring that Hong Kong's economy is doddering and unprogressive, and that from both an entrepreneurial and infrastructure point of view, it is lagging behind the world and mainland China.
Other critics say that Hong Kong is also no longer much of a reference for those seeking reform and more openness on the Chinese mainland. Some have even used the term "parasitic economy" to describe Hong Kong.
Though there is some real evidence behind these arguments, I'm still convinced that it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the Hong Kong economy. It's true that economic data would suggest the former British colony's economic output in a decade will be comparable only to some of the mainland's second-tier cities. But any smart analysis should include questions beyond mere scale.
In recent years, Hong Kong's economy has mainly depended on a highly developed modern service industry. Its experiences, as well as the lessons it has learned, are a valuable reference for the rest of China, which is undergoing an economic transformation.
Hong Kong's economy once outshone that of the whole of China. In the early 1990s, this tiny city that makes up only 1/10,000 of China's total surface area had a GDP equivalent to 25% of the mainland's. This has now fallen to 3%. Shanghai and Beijing's GDP surpassed that of Hong Kong in 2009 and 2011, respectively, and it's likely that in three to four years the city's GDP will be overtaken by China's major coastal cities, such as Guangzhou, Tianjin and Shenzhen.
So compared with 10 or 20 years ago, Hong Kong's position has dramatically changed amid global economic restructuring and the Chinese economy's newfound prominence in the world. But the economy is just one facet of Hong Kong. It would be shortsighted to assert that the post-colonial city can no longer serve as an example for Chinese reform.
Hong Kong's economic development has undergone several transformations, from manufacturing to entrepreneurial trade to a service industry led mainly by the financial sector. It's precisely this arduous journey that can be instructive for the mainland, which is experiencing a major economic transformation. Despite the impossibility of comparing Hong Kong's economic volume with China's, it's resourcefulness and adaptability are still beyond the reach of most cities.
Rule of law
In China's latest Plenary Session, some of the smartest reforms are aimed at improving its administrative approval system, restraining the government's power, and building a society ruled by law. The core of these reforms is to enable the market to play a "decisive" role in the allocation of resources.
A free market and the rule of law are precisely what Hong Kong has always painstakingly strived for as a way to guarantee its competitiveness. Such public "software" is precisely what a lot of Chinese mainland cities are lacking. Without such basic competence, their investment environments will remain unattractive.
Not only does China's manufacturing need an upgrade, so too does its service sector, which means more confidence in the rule of law and a service-oriented government. Hong Kong's legal system is a result of a long history and constant improvement. When Chinese companies face litigation with multinationals, they often prefer to go to Hong Kong for arbitration or adjudication. This kind of trust is what we call an "intangible asset."
Central to encouraging competitiveness is Hong Kong's highly competent and professional work force. Not only does Hong Kong welcome talent from all over the world, it also possesses a top education system, with several prestigious universities, such as the University of Hong Kong, The Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Hong Kong also remains the first stop for expanding internationally for many Chinese companies. Not only have hundreds of mainland enterprises been listed on the stock market and successfully obtained funding, even more important are Hong Kong's stringent listing procedures and information disclosure and accounting standards. This has even drawn some of China's top state-owned enterprises.
Tale of more than two cities
Many believe that Shanghai will eventually replace Hong Kong. But it is a mistake to consider this a zero-sum game, or "Tale of Two Cities." The sheer size of China's economy can offer plenty of space for several financial centers, which all would have something to learn from Hong Kong. Take Shanghai's ongoing efforts to build a free-trade zone, an area in which Hong Kong has long been a world leader.
Undoubtedly, Hong Kong faces severe challenges ahead, and must find ways to move beyond being just a financial center and get better leadership from its public officials. In the long run, its biggest opportunity is the expansion and transformation of the entire Chinese economy. As China transits from a capital-inbound country to a capital-outbound one, Hong Kong shouldn't miss the chance to consolidate and accelerate its role as Asia's top financial center.