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OBOR: Can It Reduce the Growing Gap between Hong Kong & Beijing?

In his annual policy address in January 2016, Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung chose to put the “One Belt, One Road” initiative at the forefront of his policy for the year. Mentioning the phrase no less than 48 times in his address, “One Belt, One Road” became the most-mentioned slogan in a Hong Kong Chief Executive’s policy address ever, passing even such slogans as “one-country, two systems.” Chief Executive Leung omitted popular topics closer to home like anti-mainland sentiment, political reform, and the rise of localism. Instead, he echoed mainland sentiment that Hong Kong should participate fully in the New Silk Road. Effectively, he sent a message to Hong Kong people that Hong Kong could no longer go at it alone, that the city’s and the country’s fate had become inextricably linked.

The “One Belt, One Road” initiative, launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013, represents Beijing’s large-scale effort to bolster China’s export capacity throughout Asia. The phrase refers to two separate initiatives led by Beijing meant to revive the Silk Road significant infrastructure investment in Asia. First the “Silk Road Economic Belt” seeks to improve transport infrastructure throughout Central Asia, allowing China to access the European market overland. Second, the “Maritime Silk Road” seeks to open up ports throughout South and Southeast Asia and East Africa and expand trade with countries in those regions. Until this year, discussion of  “One Belt, One Road” was primarily limited to the mainland.

No longer, declared C. Y. Leung in his 2016 policy address. The Chief Executive signaled to Beijing in January that he was ready to orient Hong Kong to reap the benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative. Hong Kong, according to its Chief Executive, can become a “super connector” in the New Silk Road, able to link mainland and foreign businesses due to its advanced professional services industry. The city possesses an aptitude for logistical, legal, and financial services that the mainland lacks. On the other hand, the One Belt, One Road initiative would expand Hong Kong businesses’ access to Central and South Asian markets and would allow Hong Kong businesses to draw from the hefty, $40 billion Silk Road Fund for international projects.

The first step in 2016 to raise awareness of the Belt and Road Initiative among Hong Kong business people was the Belt and Road Summit, held on May 18. The Hong Kong Trade and Development Council, a business association that works to connect Hong Kong firms with international investors, suppliers, and buyers, hosted the Summit. The Summit aimed to introduce international and local businesses to investment and networking opportunities with companies working on projects along the New Silk Road. International trade delegations from several countries, including the United Arab Emirates, and companies seeking investors in their Belt and Road-affiliated projects.

However, the summit’s keynote speaker, Politburo Standing Committee member and National People’s Congress Chairman Zhang Dejiang, upstaged the event itself. Zhang drew a clear line between Hong Kong’s participation in One Belt, One Road and the continued success of “one country, two systems.” “Just like I’m from the northeastern part of China, I love my hometown and my motherland,” he asserted, “but separatism under the camouflage of localism, which is contrary to the original idea of ‘one country, two systems,’ … the public can judge whether that is a blessing or a curse for Hong Kong.” In Beijing’s view, Hong Kong’s continued adherence to “one country, two systems” is an existential issue. The city can only continue to prosper as long as it continues to act as the gateway between China and the world. Beijing’s message is clear: if Hong Kong wants to continue to reap the benefits from its status as a “super connector” between the world and China, it must work to stamp out “separatism under the guise of localism.”

Both Leung’s January address and Zhang’s May speech defied expectations. Chief Executive Leung, expected to address local concerns in January, surprisingly echoed national sentiments on the “New Silk Road.” Chairman Zhang, expected to echo Beijing’s overtures on One Belt, One Road, unpredictably weighed in on local issues. If nothing else, the two leaders have shown that the fates of Hong Kong and Beijing are becoming increasingly intertwined. To conclude in Zhang’s own words, “the public can judge whether that is a blessing or a curse.”

By Alec Nash, June 15, 2016

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