In November 2018, when meeting with representatives from Hong Kong and Macao, China’s President Xi Jinping said that the two cities have made ‘enormous contributions’ and played ‘irreplaceable’ roles in the motherland’s reform and opening-up. While their special administrative region (SAR) status sets them apart from the rest of China, Xi stressed that they must integrate into national development through participation in the Belt and Road Initiative and Guangdong–Hong Kong–Macao Greater Bay Area.
Unlike the Belt and Road Initiative, which has received extensive media coverage over the last few years, the Greater Bay Area has only begun to gather momentum in recent months. This follows the promulgation of the Outline Development Plan for the Greater Bay Area on 18 February and the launch of the Greater Bay Area Symposium in Tokyo on 9 April.
Nationally speaking, the Greater Bay Area is one of China’s 19 city-clusters and three world-class city-clusters (the other two are the Beijing–Tianjin–Hebei Region and the Yangtze River Economic Belt). Nicknamed ‘9+2’, it comprises of nine Guangdong municipalities – Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Foshan, Huizhou, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Jiangmen and Zhaoqing – in addition to the Hong Kong and Macao SARs, both ex-colonies. Where the development of city-clusters is employed by Beijing as a strategy to coordinate urbanisation, the construction of the Greater Bay Area is less about urbanisation, and more about the national integration of the SARs.
This can be seen from Xi’s report to the 19th National Party Congress delivered in October 2017, in which the Greater Bay Area is mentioned under the chapter titled ‘Upholding “One Country, Two Systems” and Moving toward National Reunification’. While cross-border business and social flows have historically flourished in the region that is now branded the Greater Bay Area, the area is a new, top-down political initiative. It is a ‘national strategy personally devised, personally planned and personally driven’ by none other than Xi himself.
The Greater Bay Area can be understood as a new framework to contextualise Hong Kong’s relationship with mainland China. Since China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997 – and especially since the 2003 launch of the Individual Visit Scheme that eases restrictions for Mainlanders to visit Hong Kong – Mainland Chinese presence in the city has been on the rise. This ongoing trend is perceived as core to Beijing’s strategy of ‘mainlandising’ or ‘sinicising’ Hong Kong, which allegedly serves to dilute the SAR’s distinctiveness and local identity.
Against this background, the concept of the Greater Bay Area serves to reformulate the local discourse of Hong Kong–Mainland relations in the terms of ‘regional development’ that is associated with a progressive and inclusive teleology. This is strategic for national integration in two major ways.
First, it shifts the focus of the Hong Kong–Mainland relationship from high-profile political controversies that demonstrate a clash in value systems between Hong Kong and the Mainland (notably the Extradition Law and the sentencing of the Occupy Movement’s leaders) towards socio-economic cooperation that purportedly benefits Hong Kong society as a whole.
Second, it downplays Hong Kong people’s sense of superiority over Mainlanders – an iconic example being Hong Kong football fans booing the national anthem – by cultivating the impression that the Mainland offers more and better opportunities than Hong Kong, a city that is ultimately confined by a lack of space.
The Greater Bay Area serves to deepen Hong Kong’s national integration with the Mainland by making it very convenient, and indeed ordinary and desirable, for Hongkongers to live and work across the border. National integration will be achieved when crossing the border into Guangdong Province becomes a daily routine for the majority of Hong Kong people, instead of only those with strong family and business ties with the Mainland.
To turn this into a reality, a bundle of policy measures — most previously unheard of — are being introduced under the Greater Bay Area initiative. These include, for example, the issue of Mainland residence permits to Hong Kong residents, permission for Hong Kong residents to join the Mainland’s Housing Provident Fund and the removal of the requirement for Hong Kong residents to apply for employment permits to take up employment in the Mainland.
On 21 November 2018, Vice-Premier Han Zheng even offered to let Hong Kong and Macao residents work as civil servants at the nine Guangdong municipalities in the Greater Bay Area. While some may construe these measures from the perspective of improving Hong Kong people’s personal welfare, it is evident that they also serve to solicit their national identification.
Despite the economic appeal of the Greater Bay Area, critics in Hong Kong are upset that the SAR is now ‘being planned’ by Beijing, and that the local government does not articulate any vision outside the centrally-imposed framework. There is no question that this initiative is bringing ‘one country, two systems’ to a new stage in which the goal of national integration is becoming even stronger than before.
Dr Olivia Cheung is a Teaching Fellow in East Asian Politics and International Relations at the University of Warwick. This commentary first appeared in East Asia Forum.