National People’s Congress chief, acknowledging city’s role in country’s growth, says it can still work with mainland for mutual economic gain

Hong Kong would continue to play a crucial role as China opens up economically, the country’s No 3 ­official said on Saturday, stressing that the central government would never forget the city’s “historic contribution” to the nation’s development.

Striking an optimistic note ­despite recent tensions over pro-independence movements in the city and the controversial enforcement of mainland laws in the West Kowloon high-speed train terminal, Zhang Dejiang said China needed Hong Kong and would continue to help it.

“Nowadays, as the nation is going to become fully open … Hong Kong will continue to play a vital role [in which it] is difficult to be replaced,” the chief of the National People’s Congress said in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.

“In the nation’s development, we will always need Hong Kong and [will] help the city in making accomplishments.”
Zhang was addressing a Belt and Road forum organised by the Hong Kong government and the Belt and Road General Chamber of Commerce, founded by Hong Kong and mainland businesspeople. The “Belt and Road Initiative” is the central government’s plan to boost trade in neighbouring Asian countries and beyond.

Zhang expressed four hopes for Hong Kong – that it would focus on the nation’s needs and take the initiative in matching national development strategies; play to its strengths as it cooperates with the mainland; promote innovation; and foster exchanges between Belt and Road countries.
He said while he recognised the Hong Kong government’s efforts in leading the city to take part in the Belt and Road plan, “it, together with various sectors, needs to have a deeper understanding of the national development strategies … and improve its communication mechanisms with mainland authorities”.

au Siu-kai, vice-chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a semi-official think tank, said Zhang’s optimism was consistent with Beijing’s stance that Hong Kong would have a bright future under China’s strategies.
“The central government is still a bit worried about Hong Kong’s [economic] future … from their perspective, that will depend on whether the city can make use of and contribute under the Belt and Road Initiative,” he said.

Under President Xi Jinping, Beijing has revamped its economic diplomacy with the launch of the modern-day Silk Road trade strategy. The initiative was launched in 2013 to promote infrastructure projects in about 65 countries from Asia to Europe.

Closing his 30-minute speech, Zhang said: “Looking back at the 40 magnificent years after the country has opened up, we have not forgotten … that Hong Kong has played a unique role.”
Speaking at the same event, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said the city would continue to strengthen its ties with the mainland and its foreign trading partners.
“Hong Kong needs to strengthen its existing advantages and explore new ones,” she said.

“I am pleased that the proactive approach of the current administration, in integrating with the national development strategies, has been widely recognised.”
On Friday, Hong Kong was ranked the world’s freest economy for the 24th straight year by the Heritage Foundation, a ­Washington think tank.
But Lam said the city would not be complacent.

Using a Chinese idiom, she added: “As I said in my inaugural speech … the competitiveness of a place is like rowing a boat against the current. You fall behind if you don’t strive to go forward.”

Lam’s and Zhang’s words came at a time of fraught relations between the mainland and parts of Hong Kong society. The local government recently struck an agreement under which the central government will lease part of an under-construction high-speed rail terminal in the city. The lease will allow mainland officials to enforce mainland laws in Hong Kong, to the outrage of pro-democracy legislators. The government still needs the Legislative Council’s approval for the full plan.
Ministers have also contended with a small but vocal movement for the city to break away from the mainland, with pro-independence banners and fliers emerging on school and university campuses. The government last month disqualified an activist from a Legco by-election because of her advocacy of the city’s “self-determination”.