Hong Kong has been accorded a leading role as Beijing aims to integrate the former British colony into a mega conurbation of boomtowns that will also include Macau and nine neighboring cities in Guangdong province, with a stated goal to rival and even overtake the economic prowess of New York, San Francisco and Tokyo as well as their sprawling agglomerations.

The much-touted Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area is the brainchild of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who first coined the idea of forming megalopolises in the Pearl River Delta in 2017.

Now the lofty initiative has a master plan for implementation, after Monday’s release of a detailed guideline that has mapped out each city’s position on Beijing’s grandiose vision for a Bay Area as a world-class economic and innovation dynamo.

Hong Kong will spearhead the project in finance, trade, aviation, logistics, legal and professional services and innovation and tertiary education, all areas of its own expertise, to elevate its competitiveness as a world city, as stipulated in Beijing’s plan.

Macau will focus on tourism and leisure, while Guangdong’s capital Guangzhou will cement its status as a trading and transportation hub and Shenzhen, which already boosts a gross domestic product bigger than Hong Kong’s, will double down on innovation, research and development as well as technology-intensive industries as China’s answer to Silicon Valley. Seven smaller but affluent cities in Guangdong province, Foshan, Dongguan, Zhuhai, Zhongshan, Huizhou, Zhaoqing and Jiangmen, are also covered by the ambitious blueprint.

The project document includes a medium-term goal, which stretches to 2022, while the long-term vision is geared toward 2035.

The Greater Bay Area is now home to 68 million people and accounts for 10% of China’s GDP, or US$1.58 trillion in 2017, about the size of South Korea or Australia.

Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong province in China. Photo: iStock
Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, will consolidate its edge in trade, commerce and transportation. Photo: iStock
Sprawling skyscrapers in Shenzhen, now a booming tech and financial hub in China. Photo: Xinhua
Sprawling skyscrapers in Shenzhen, now a booming tech and financial hub in China. Photo: Xinhua
Macau, China city skyline at dusk.
The gaming hub of Macau will focus on leisure and tourism. Photo: Xinhua

Officials in Hong Kong have been quick to praise Beijing’s promulgation of the master plan, hailing it “a momentous day,” despite the mixed responses in the city, with some worrying that further economic integration could occur at the expense of Hong Kong’s own autonomy and uniqueness. The city operates under the “one country, two systems” framework with Beijing’s pledge of non-intervention other than in defense and diplomacy, after it was handed back by London in 1997.

One opposition lawmaker said: “Hong Kong is a free economy, one of the freest markets in the world for close to a hundred years. Is that going to change” with Beijing’s top-down planning and role-assigning?

The plan has also outlined ways to make it easier for Hong Kong and Macau residents to study, live and work across the border, including encouraging them to join the mainland’s civil service and cutting red tape to allow motorists in the two cities to drive freely in the Greater Bay Area, among others.

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority, the city’s de facto central bank, says it has been working with its mainland counterpart to make it easier for Hong Kong residents to set up bank accounts in Greater Bay Area cities.

“There are different processes in different cities in terms of the requirements, documentations … so the first objective is to standardize these requirements so that Hong Kong residents in any part of the Bay Area would meet with the same requirements,” it said.

To boost connectivity, more intercity express railroads, metro networks and highways will be built. The scrapping of roaming charges will also be taken into consideration.

Meanwhile, some scholars in Hong Kong say Beijing’s drive for a Greater Bay Area could be the final opportunity for Hong Kong to avoid head-on rivalry with the region, which is catching up fast, with Guangzhou also set to surpass Hong Kong in GDP as soon as this year.

Hong Kong’s annual economic output was larger than the entire province of Guangdong and equal to a quarter of China’s total in 1997, yet its share had nosedived to about 3% by 2018.

Anthony Yeh of the University of Hong Kong told RTHK that Hong Kong could risk becoming the “next Liverpool” if it filed to outcompete Guangzhou and Shenzhen, referring to the port city in England that experienced economic recessions after the 1970s.