Will Hong Kong Become a Has-Been?

There has been buzz lately in Asia that Hong Kong may become a has-been. As the global financial crisis gathered speed last year, Hong Kong looked relatively well insulated from the crashing markets because its banks were not heavily exposed to credit default swaps and all those other funky instruments. But the buzz is about changing politics, not markets. In April, Chinese officials announced firmly that they would like to see Shanghai become a global financial center by 2020; in the same month, Premier Wen Jiabao warned that Hong Kong must raise its game or face decline. The news was chilling for many in Hong Kong, which serves as a gateway to China for investors and is almost entirely dependent on financial services. Some 60 percent of the market capitalization of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and more than 70 percent of its daily trading is in shares of Chinese mainland firms. Many of these are large state-run enterprises—the sort that leaders in Beijing could very easily order to trade in Shanghai instead.

Beijing pushed for Shanghai to play a bigger role as a financial center back in the early 1990s. But it didn't take off then because Chinese financial capitalism was still relatively immature. Now the mainland markets in Shanghai as well as Shenzhen are more developed, major Shanghai banks having learned a lot from the experience of Hong Kong.

Shares in state-owned firms can be more freely traded, and the government is looking to create new kinds of securities. In the coming years, Beijing is expected to allow the yuan to trade more freely, which could give it a major role in international currency trading. But to allow markets to mature without completely losing control over them, Beijing needs traders that are competent, but also compliant—the sort it can reach and influence more easily in Shanghai than in Hong Kong, where market rules are still based on foreign law.

Chinese officials are also beefing up banking in Beijing, but given Shanghai's historic position as a trading center and its broader reach in finance, it will likely remain the country's key city of commerce. What's more, the fact that the Shanghai faction in government lost power a few years back when a number of politicians were taken down for corruption means that Beijing can now better police and direct the city's future development.

Finally, like most financial centers at the moment, Hong Kong is in a drastically weakened state. Amid the global crash, Hong Kong's economy contracted by 7.8 percent in the first quarter of 2009, even as China's GDP as a whole continued to grow. Now that the entire world is tipping toward Beijing's model of state regulation, China may feel emboldened to sideline this eastern redoubt of British free-market capitalism.

So Hong Kong is searching for a new role once again. The city has adapted before—it went from selling plastic flowers 50 years ago to higher levels of manufacturing to being a global financial capital. It still has the advantage of a fully convertible currency, as well as rule of law, which remains unreliable on the mainland. And last week's announcement that Charles Li, a JPMorgan banker with strong ties to the mainland, would take charge of the exchange in January was a sign that Hong Kong is trying hard to bolster its position. But with at least some of its old business likely to move to Shanghai and Beijing, the city needs to move beyond trading, and leaders know it. Speaking to the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong recently, the city's current stock-exchange chief, Paul Chow, acknowledged the challenge. ÒLook back over the past five years, and compare the state of [the] mainland China market in 2003 to the current state. Substantial improvements. And what will happen in the next five years? Ten years?Ó

If Beijing has its way, the answer is clear. Yet there are still opportunities for Hong Kong to rebrand itself, perhaps as a provider of consulting services to Chinese businesses—helping less-sophisticated enterprises from the mainland figure out how to sell themselves to an international audience as they expand abroad, or as an education hub, churning out M.B.A.s to work in top Chinese and Asian businesses. Either way, it will need to deal with some of the governance problems and issues of vested interests that have plagued it in recent years. Critics say Asian tycoons are able to bend market regulations to suit their whims here, and the city has yet to deal properly with its recent minibond scandal, in which many individual investors lost their life savings after unwittingly buying Lehman Brothers' bonds through intermediaries. One of the last remaining advantages Hong Kong holds is the perception that it's still a fairer, better-governed financial capital than Shanghai. If it can't hold on to that, it will surely become, as former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji predicted a few years back, Toronto to Shanghai's New York.