Hong Kong 2019: Envisioning (and Exploring) Our Asian Future

Signature Hong Kong. (Illustration: Joaquin Gonzalez-Dorao)

Throughout my extended globetrotting years, many moons ago, I wrote detailed travelogues religiously. I cherished these notes from the road, so much so that I put my travel journals in a safe-deposit box. Never mind jewels: what I learned from these experiences and adventures felt far more valuable.

Since swapping my backpack for somewhat more professional luggage, people continue to ask me for travel advice, and truth be told, I’ll never not have wanderlust, and nowhere do I feel more alive than when exploring a new place. Even though most of my travel is now for business — advising, speaking or consulting — I still find it hard to distinguish between types of travel. A business trip always includes extra time to explore, and a personal adventure always includes opportunities for professional insights.

In the new year, I’d like to return to my roots and jumpstart a travelogue series. Having visited more than 100 countries, I have plenty of fodder. But my motivation is to share far more than number of countries or sites to visit. Rather, I wish to share observations about places that one won’t find in a travel guidebook, yet make those places more accessible and deepen one’s knowledge. Consider this part business, part adventure — and hopefully a new lens on the world!

Hong Kong: A New Bay Area?

To kick off, I just returned from Hong Kong, where I keynoted the Asian Financial Forum. The last time I was in Hong Kong was more than ten years ago, so it felt like a new place. As my friend Parag Khanna says, “the future is Asian.” Never have I felt that more than on this trip.

Half of the world’s population lives within a five-hour flight of Hong Kong. It’s touted as “the freest economy in the world.” While there is concern about the impact of a U.S.-China trade war, Hong Kong is preparing for the future in a way that the West is not.

Hong Kong panorama. Under construction is a long bayside park and pathway: a Chinese Embarcadero.

We hear about China’s Belt and Road initiative to build and link infrastructure development and investments across Asia, Africa and Europe. But have you heard about the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Bay Area? Or just call it the Bay Area: according to some, a related goal is to overtake the term Bay Area globally, so that when someone thinks of “the Bay Area” 10 years from now, they think first of China, not San Francisco.

The Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Bay Area is touted as a combination of “Silicon Valley and New York City,” a city cluster with 70 million people including Hong Kong, Macau and nine Pearl River Delta cities. It is intended to be an international economic engine with a “world-class market-oriented business environment, [to] promote the free flow of talent, goods and capital across the region, while raising the overall level of economic efficiency, transparency and internationalization.” There are plans for inter-city cooperation, shared infrastructure and market integration. Given China’s intensity of vision and investment, we should not be surprised if this happens.

Big Questions

The Asian Financial Forum was a perfect setting to get a solid footing for where Hong Kong has been and where it is going. Moreover, being there when Theresa May’s latest Brexit plan was soundly trounced in Parliament gave pause to consider just how much has changed. Those who may have worried about Hong Kong’s transfer from the UK to China in 1997 can breathe a sigh of relief to be unattached to the UK now.

That said, there were some bona fide concerns: How do we transition from synchronized growth in 2018 to a potential synchronized downturn in 2019? Will the new Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge (which is both the longest sea crossing and the longest fixed link on earth) shift Hong Kong’s position from uniquely independent to “just another large Chinese city?” What happens if and when China’s economy and labor force shifts from manufacturing to services — and what are the ripple effects of this?

Last but not least, questions about the U.S.-China trade wars abounded. Robert Zoellick, former World Bank president and U.S. trade representative, put it best: “it’s about finding a truce, not a solution.”

The Sharing Economy, Chinese Style

I have been immersed in China’s sharing economy ever since the Chinese government declared it a “national priority” back in 2015 and stated its goal that it drive 10% of China’s GDP by 2020. No other country has done anything even close to this.

Great Q&A with an enthusiastic audience and host Raymund Chao of PwC.

However, in its race to grow, China’s sharing economy has begun to both overheat and stretch the limits of reasonableness. We can start with definitions: the sharing economy in China is defined more broadly, and leniently, than anywhere else in the world. China’s sharing economy is more akin to the digital economy and e-commerce elsewhere. It would include companies such as Amazon, Groupon and Yelp. On the one hand, the sharing economy can be seen as a modern expression of the Communist intent and social capitalism, which may explain its almost limitless definition. On the other hand, however, the risk of “sharewashing” is exceptionally high.

Thankfully, there is growing concern in China about whether their zest for all things “sharing” has gone too far. Several Chinese sharing economy platforms (from bicycles to umbrellas) are struggling, rumored to be running out of money and ordering mass layoffs, or have already shut down. From my perspective, this is healthy and to be expected… and not actually about whether the sharing economy can succeed at all.

Rather, the sharing economy holds as much potential as it ever has. In China, many sharing economy platforms have focused on quick wins and hockey-stick growth. The focus has been on money, not mindsets; short-term, not sustainability. If China can course-correct (which depends in large part on whether trust can be regained), then the sharing economy can be a boon for China’s economic, environmental and social plans. It was refreshing to see an audience so receptive to this reality and a sincere desire to improve.

Hong Kong’s Urban Groove

Hong Kong has long been a visitor’s delight. But in recent years its offerings have reached new heights. Three places highly worth visiting include:

  • PMQ (Police Married Quarters): a newly refurbished massive complex housing hundreds of artists’ boutiques, workshops, bookstores, bakeries, studios and co-working spaces. It reminds me of Telliskivi Creative City in Tallinn, Estonia (one of the coolest places on the planet), only ten times the size.
  • Tai Kwun: housed in the recently restored Central Police Station, this new center for heritage and arts hosts a wide range of art, performance and lifestyle experiences. It’s a perfect blend of history, creative urban planning, people-watching and entertainment.
  • Monster Building (aka Yik Cheong Building): well off the beaten path, yet easily accessible (a short walk from the Quarry Bay MTR stop) is this incredible complex of colorful, dense, dilapidated and much-loved buildings. Very photogenic, too!
At the Monster Building: because handstands are my own travel signature!