Beijing unveils plan for cross-border innovation hub

A major announcement this week by Beijing of its plans for a Greater Bay Area (GBA) of cooperation between Hong Kong, Macau and nine cities in China’s southern Guangdong province will provide impetus for cross-border higher education and research collaboration if differences can be overcome.

By 2035 the region is expected to have some of the world’s top companies, best universities, busiest ports and most advanced technologies, according to the document from China’s State Council in Beijing, unveiled on 18 February and variously described as a masterplan, development plan or blueprint for the so-called Greater Bay Area.

The intention is to integrate the market, communications, infrastructure, manufacturing and research to create a Southern Chinese Bay Area to rival Silicon Valley, the Tokyo Bay Area and other innovation hubs.

Stark rivalries

Experts point to stark intercity rivalries, particularly between Hong Kong and Shenzhen just across the border and different research cultures, legal systems and freedoms, including academic freedom and university autonomy.

China has already spent billions of dollars on infrastructure projects linking the cities of Shenzhen and Hong Kong. The document released this week focuses on “in-depth integration of industries, academia and research”, while leveraging “the rich scientific research resources and solid foundations in new and hi-tech industries of core cities such as Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou and Shenzhen”.

The integration of Hong Kong and the former Portuguese colony of Macau with nine cities in Southern China has been mooted for some time – the idea of the southern bay area first appeared in central government documents in 2015 and was part of China’s 13th Five-Year Plan released in 2016 but has gained added impetus with the US-China trade war which is also targeting US technology transfers to China.

“It’s not a new thing,” said Yang Rui, professor of education at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). “Even before the trade war with the US, people were already talking about this and we were expecting to get this [document] around this time.”

But Joshua Mok Ka-ho, vice president of Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, says compared to the past, where the GBA project was an initiative of the Guangdong provincial government supporting collaborations with cities in the province, this now has the endorsement of and is being “orchestrated by the central government” in Beijing.

“This document reveals Beijing’s confidence in Hong Kong as an international finance centre, and high technology [centre] based upon our very strong university system.”

Dependent on mutual respect

“Hong Kong’s higher education system, legal system is trusted globally. And while Chinese cities are catching up, I would argue that internationally trust is something valuable,” says Mok.

“It very much depends whether people within the region can work together with good faith and the different cities can respect each other with coordination from central government in this hub; then the Bay Area can be successful,” if not like Tokyo or elsewhere.

Shen Jianfa, professor in the department of geography and resource management at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), says nonetheless Shenzhen and Hong Kong have their own particular strengths.

“Hong Kong has very international, outstanding universities and is strong in basic research, while the Shenzhen side are very strong in innovation and R&D and also linking to the manufacturing sector. If the two cities co-operate, they can join hands in different kinds of innovation activities.”

The two cities, while rivals, are seen as complementing each other. “Shenzhen is globally ranked as more innovative than Hong Kong, but they don’t have any world-class universities and we do,” says Gerard Postiglione, professor of education at Hong Kong University (HKU).

With Hong Kong’s world-class universities, the Greater Bay Area “could become one of the most innovative centres in the world”, he believes.

A recent report by China’s Ministry of Education notes that China’s major research universities with “double world-class status” are mainly concentrated in Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing, leaving the Guangdong area with less “highly rated” institutions.

From Hong Kong’s perspective, the plan enables it to strengthen its role in the region's science and technology development at a time when its own economic drivers are sagging and it is declining in global competitivity indicators.

“Hong Kong was doing extremely well [economically], but now it is being surpassed by Shenzhen and the other S’s globally – Singapore, Seoul, San Francisco, Switzerland, Shanghai – so it really needs to do something as a free economy and a place that draws talent,” Postiglione says.

Internationalisation goal

One of the major aims of the GBA project is to step up internationalisation.

A goal outlined in the blueprint is “to develop a talent pool” for the GBA, in particular “drawing experience from and modelling on the practices of Hong Kong and Macau with respect to attracting high-end international talents, create a more attractive environment for bringing in talents”.

Wong Kam Fai, engineering professor and director of the Centre for Innovation and Technology at CUHK, and also a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, says many Hong Kong scholars graduated from top universities overseas. “They don’t just bring back knowledge, they bring back their international networks.”

“Because of that, in Hong Kong for the past many years we have been setting up international projects and international laboratories, which is more difficult for people in the mainland, even in Shenzhen or Guangzhou,” says Wong.

“The suggestion from our [Hong Kong] side is once we have done the basic research part in Hong Kong, we transfer the technology, the knowledge to the North to Shenzhen and Guangzhou. That will be the transfer of technology part, then there will be the prototyping and the commercialisation to the Greater Bay Area,” Wong says, which will be done in Guangdong.

Some fields of basic research where Hong Kong is very strong include medical and biomedical engineering. “And this technology is also needed in the Greater Bay Area because of the population ageing problem [in China],” he says.

Wong adds that it is essential that partnerships are between cities that are closer economically, such as between Hong Kong and Shenzhen where the GDP per capita is similar.

“An international innovation and technology hub is one of the objectives of the GBA and for that you need to have people on a par economically,” says Wong. “It essential you do not have mentorship-like arrangements.”

Currently four Hong Kong universities have research centres across the border. Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has a joint research centre in Shenzhen and Guangzhou. HKU and Hong Kong Baptist University also have centres in Shenzhen, while Lingnan University has one in Guangzhou.

Joint research projects

The GBA blueprint says Hong Kong and Macau research institutes established in Guangdong can enjoy the same treatment as mainland institutes, it allows higher education and research institutes in Hong Kong and Macau to apply for mainland technology projects, and use the funding on the mainland as well as in Hong Kong and Macau, and enables the setting up of special funding schemes for joint innovation projects.

“Chinese investment in science and technology is huge, and Hong Kong cannot compete,” says Lingnan’s Mok. China has channelled huge investment into laboratories and hardware in recent years and “by partnering with key laboratories, Hong Kong will benefit”.

It also allows the cross-border use of funds within the GBA, including the joint development of a GBA Big Data centre.

Under the GBA plan, the authorities are “encouraging people to set up cross-border labs, either they [mainland researchers] come to Hong Kong’s science park or Hong Kong cyberport or we go to Shenzhen or Guangzhou,” says Wong.

But with different taxation systems in China and Hong Kong, lawmakers in Hong Kong “have been very negative about taxpayers’ money being spent in cities across the border. And that’s why going across the border is a big issue,” Wong says.

Another proposal in the blueprint, and already flagged up last year, is a GBA research fund.

“The principle investigators will take control of it [the funds disbursed] like a normal research proposal, but this time there is a shared amount, a joint venture, a pool of money with different cities chipping in,” Wong says.

“One of the requirements of an application is that you must have two parties, one from the mainland and one outside,” Wong explains.

Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Shenzhen University already announced last July they would jointly set up the Greater Bay Area International Institute for Innovation, bringing in global talent, post-doctoral researchers and investors. “The institute will help promote the internationalisation of the GBA,” according to the announcement.

An alliance between CUHK, the University of Macau and Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou was also announced last year. The intended aim was to “advance regional integration and innovation while providing intelligence to the emerging Bay Area”, according to a statement in July, with the objectives similar to university alliances that support China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative.

Diverse research cultures

The plan released last Monday has emphasised the importance of maintaining the “one country, two systems” frameworks meant to ensure a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong and Macau. But it also identified diverging social, border customs arrangements and legal systems as a challenge to cross-border collaboration, without providing details on how this would be overcome.

“There are a lot of complex issues because of the two systems, and the question is how to do it. It’s not a separate country but there are separate jurisdictions and you don’t have that in Tokyo or San Francisco,” notes Postiglione. “In higher education, Hong Kong’s universities have high levels of autonomy and academic freedom which contrasts with over the border, but we are trying to build networks and cooperation.”

It will have to progress step by step, Postiglione predicts, “and it will depend on whose involved and what the levels of power are on each side and whether each is willing to negotiate.”

With Hong Kong science predominantly using English, “the language is different, technology is different, the agenda is different and the way we do research is also very different,” says Yang Rui, associate dean for cross-border and international engagement at HKU.

CUHK’s Shen notes Shenzhen has been “recruiting globally to find the best scholars for Shenzhen’s universities and research institutes in the past few years and [they are] offering very good packages as well”, and some from Hong Kong have taken up the offer.

“Of course they have to adapt to a new culture and arrangements. For example, you can’t use Google to search for information. You cannot use Facebook,” he says, referring to webportals blocked in China. “You have to use alternative search engines to do your work and maybe sometimes you have to come to Hong Kong to make use of the [more open] resources there.”

Need for freedoms

Hong Kong academics say they are under pressure to work with mainland institutions and academics, but often “we don’t know how”, says HKU’s Yang, particularly in the social sciences and humanities. “Both sides complain,” he says.

Lingnan’s Mok agrees that collaboration in social science and humanities research “requires more understanding”.

He notes, for example, that Hong Kong researchers are “more sensitive to ethical issues”.

“The strength of Hong Kong is that we have long been embedded in the sort of research culture which is recognised and respected by the international community,” so if China wants Hong Kong to help it perform better internationally, “it will need to accept that. If they want to position Chinese universities globally, this is the kind of practice that has to be observed.”

“If China really wants to have mobility of people within the Greater Bay Area and working together, they are bound to have a lot of issues relating to policy, particularly social policy,” Mok notes, pointing to a joint centre being set up between Lingnan University and South China University of Technology in Shenzhen to collaborate on such social science research.

The relationship between China and universities in Hong Kong “has become problematic recently”, Yang notes, with China pressuring Hong Kong on campus freedoms. But Hong Kong can maximise its benefits if it is working well with the mainland, because they are huge and Hong Kong is small.”

“If they like you, they may give you more autonomy, but if you are ‘naughty’ you will benefit very little,” Yang notes, adding, “Hopefully the Chinese government will give us enough autonomy”.