Make HKSAR a bridge, rather than a barrier, between UK and China

Hong Kong is back and has reopened to the world. With a new administration in place, political and social stability restored, and the COVID-19 pandemic at last receding to a painful memory, the special administrative region has reopened for trade, business and tourism.

The city has regained vitality, as evidenced by the surge in activities of various kinds in recent months. A couple of months ago, the iconic Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament drew tens of thousands of fans to its opening game, with thousands more gathering to watch more than 70 high-quality matches. The Hong Kong Stock Exchange is attracting a steady pipeline of listings, with Alibaba’s logistics arm reportedly looking at raising $2 billion in a Hong Kong initial public offering.

Hong Kong exists and thrives as an outward-looking global city and as an entrepreneurial hub. Like many thousands of fellow residents, I was born and raised in the city, attended school and university in the United Kingdom, started and grew my business there, and then returned home to avail of Hong Kong’s unique advantages under “one country, two systems” and as a middleman between the Chinese mainland and the rest of the world.

When China resumed exercise of its sovereignty over Hong Kong on July 1, 1997, then-UK prime minister Tony Blair expressed his hope that henceforth our city would function as a bridge, rather than a barrier, between Britain and China. That hope grew wings and took flight — culminating in the “golden era” of then-prime minister David Cameron. Such a cordial relationship has been good for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Britain and China.

The cooling of relations in the last few years, when we should have come together to meet shared challenges, has not been good for anyone.

So I am encouraged to see the initial signs of improving relations.

Early this month, Brian Davidson, Britain’s consul general for Hong Kong and Macao, told the local media: “After some difficult headwinds, … we are looking to lean back into a constructive engagement to see where we can collaborate.”

These were encouraging and overdue words. Immediately following Davidson’s remarks, Dominic Johnson, Britain’s minister of state in the Department for Business and Trade, visited Hong Kong, becoming the first senior British official to pay an official visit to the city in five years. His discussion with the Hong Kong secretary for financial services and the Treasury, Christopher Hui Ching-yu, reportedly focused on “our ongoing work to remove market barriers and increase UK-Hong Kong trade”.

This is vitally needed. Following Brexit, Britain desperately needs to find new markets for its goods and services. The Hong Kong market is attractive in its own right, and is still the best gateway to the Chinese mainland as well as to the emerging economies of Southeast Asia. In particular, Hong Kong is at the heart of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, whose nine mainland cities and two special administrative regions have a combined population of 86 million in the most prosperous region of China; its regional GDP accounts for 12 percent of the whole of China’s and for 37 percent of its total exports. Innovation and the high-tech and healthcare sectors are at the forefront of its economic plans while it also leads in financial services liberalization.

Seventy years ago this July, a group of farsighted British businessmen, overcoming the challenges of the Cold War, passed through Hong Kong on a long journey to Beijing that became known as the Icebreaker Mission. These pioneers went on to create the 48 Group, which has long since become legendary in the business relations between China and the UK and of which I have the honor to serve as a vice-president.

This shared history between China and the UK, in which Hong Kong played its part, reminds us that no matter how thick the ice, there is always a way to dispel misunderstanding and build trust based on dialogue, mutual respect and mutual benefit.

In sending Vice-President Han Zheng, as the special envoy of President Xi Jinping, to attend the recent coronation of King Charles III, China has shown its goodwill and desire to rebuild a constructive relationship with the UK. The British government, too, has shown some interest in returning to a less-confrontational relationship.

Let’s work together to build on this so that Hong Kong can once again become a bridge, not a barrier.

The author is a vice-chairman of the New People’s Party, and founder of the Global Group of Companies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.