At the same time 1.7 million people marched through the streets of Hong Kong in protest, Beijing outlined its grandiose plans to turn Shenzhen into a “world city.”

The timing has led many on the mainland to link Beijing’s high hopes for Shenzhen to Hong Kong’s diminishing potential and economic clout, a debilitating process further complicated by the widespread mistrust of Beijing in the former British territory.

Beijing wants Shenzhen to be a pilot city, demonstrating the virtues and achievements of “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” in other words, a paradigm of China’s own political, legal and economic systems.

Beijing’s long-winded policy paper for the southern city contains lofty goals encompassing 19 categories from finance to fintech, and for the first time the paper has laid down policies for the tech boomtown to morph into a new financial hub for the internationalization of the Chinese yuan and for Shenzhen and Hong Kong to feed off each other in this brave new world they envision.

The document also declared that Hongkongers and Macanese working and residing in Shenzhen would be entitled to all social and medical welfare and other benefits previously available only to locals.

A view of Shenzhen’s science park, where tech giant Tencent is based.
Beijing’s new imperative for Shenzhen, a tech boomtown, to morph into a new financial center for RMB’s internationalization is seen by some as a plan to replace part of Hong Kong’s role. Photos: Asia Times

Beijing pivoting away

The prevailing interpretation is that Beijing must have had a change of heart and decided to pivot away from Hong Kong, having been dismayed by the resent turmoil and revolt in the city.

The Communist Party’s Central Commission on Political and Legal Affairs commented on its WeChat account on Monday that elevating Shenzhen to a global level would be essential to help it unleash its full potential to get into the same elite league as New York, London and Tokyo, and in turn enrich Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” framework and help the neighbor address some of its perennial issues.

It noted that the “Greater Bay Area” initiative, with Shenzhen as its core, would spawn massive opportunities of consumption, manufacturing and employment for enterprises and individuals and defuse Hong Kong’s conflicts and allay its woes.

Hong Kong police fire tear gas near the city’s government headquarters and Legislative Council to disperse demonstrators against an amendment bill that would allow the surrender of fugitives to mainland China. Photo: Wpcpey/WikiMedia
People walk inside a tunnel that is plastered over with pro-democracy posters in Tai Po, a residential town in Hong Kong’s New Territories. Photo: Asia Times

A Peking University deputy professor in political sciences, who declined to be named, told Asia Times that cultivating Shenzhen to replace part of Hong Kong’s role as a financial center – though almost impossible in the short term given existing capital and legal constraints – could be Beijing’s contingency plan should things in Hong Kong take a turn for the worse in the next few years or decades or if the Chinese military garrisoned there was forced to intervene.

He added that Beijing had also offered Hongkongers an option to venture across the border to Shenzhen as they would be treated equally and as locals, when their own city could be destined for an even more eventful future until 2047, the year Beijing’s “one country, two systems” deal for Hong Kong officially expires.

Paving way for a merger

On Xi Jinping’s drawing board, Shenzhen must shape up to be a city better than Hong Kong on key fronts in the next 10 to 20 years – in particular in economic development, infrastructure and people’s livelihoods – to demonstrate a better life to Hongkongers and entice some to migrate northward and endorse Beijing’s system.

The elevation of Shenzhen also harks back to rumors in the lead-up to Hong Kong’s 1997 handover from London to Beijing, when many speculated that “one country, two systems” could be a stop-gap measure and Beijing’s best-laid plan would be to absorb the territory, like a merger with Shenzhen.

Shenzhen overtook Hong Kong in GDP in 2018. The city’s annual economic output was merely half of Hong Kong’s in 2008.
A public housing estate in Shenzhen. Beijing wants Shenzhen to offer better career prospects as well as cheaper, more spacious homes to woo Hongkongers. Photo: Asia Times

Shenzhen is already on a solid footing to achieve that end, with an annual economic output already larger than Hong Kong’s and its bourgeoning tech and high-end manufacturing sectors have long made Hong Kong seem a dismal laggard. Homes are still cheaper and far more spacious in Shenzhen and the underprivileged also have access to decent public housing units.

Observers believe if Shenzhen’s gross domestic product can be twice that of Hong Kong’s in the 2030s, while its per capita GDP and income also edge closer, and when the city offers better career prospects and housing and livelihood assistance while those in Hong Kong continue to struggle with bread-and-butter issues, a merger in and around 2047 could be a natural solution.

When Shenzhen outshines Hong Kong and is on a rising trajectory to supersede its neighbor on many fronts, resistance to a merger would be minimal.

Read more: London did not oppose Hong Kong-Shenzhen merger

Beijing’s plan for Shenzhen to supplant ‘unruly HK’

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