Update from MBA student Kenny Ryan:
Hong Kong likes Christmas.
No, Hong Kong loves Christmas.
Yuletide decorations are all over the place in Hong Kong. Buildings adorned with more “Merry Christmas” proclamations than you’d find at a Donald Trump rally. Christmas trees. Toy soldiers. Images of Santa and his reindeer everywhere.
Given the predominantly Buddhist disposition of the city, the decorations might be less about religion than they are about Mainland China, its neighbor to the north and where our group of MBA students went today.
The massive city of Shenzhen – population 18 million – sits just across the border from Hong Kong’s special administrative region. Known as “China’s Silicon Valley,” Shenzhen’s booming tech industry provides it just as many glittering office towers as Hong Kong, but unlike it’s festive neighbor to the south, there hasn’t been so much as a sprig of mistletoe to be seen in the communist city.
This juxtaposition shows stark differences between living under China’s communism and Hong Kong’s more liberal government. Where self-censorship is a way of life in the former, self-expression is celebrated in the latter. Almost as if Hong Kong recognizes Christmas more loudly than any American city just to celebrate the fact that it can recognize the holiday at all.
There’s a bit of a rivalry between these two cities. We met business leaders in Hong Kong who say the residents like to complain about Shenzhen’s way of doing business, all the while secretly wishing Shenzhen existed within their territory. Leaders in Shenzhen speak as if Hong Kong is a backwater next to Shenzhen’s glory – yet you can’t get any closer to Hong Kong than Shenzhen’s location. It’s like walking into a nearly empty bar, sitting down right next to the only girl there, then trying to play the “not interested” card with at least some expectation of success.
A big part of this comes down to a phrase we heard often in Hong Kong: one country, two systems. This was the bargain struck two decades ago when the United Kingdom agreed to return control of Hong Kong to China. (The British had ruled Hong Kong since the 19th century.) Here’s how it works: though Hong Kong is technically part of China, it gets to operate by its own laws, which largely are held over from when the British ruled. Sometimes mainland China pressures the Hong Kong government to behave a particular way, but so far, the agreement has held firm.
That desire for control might explain why China has put so much effort into developing Shenzhen – a former fishing village that mainland China does control – into the high-tech metropolis it’s become just outside of Hong Kong’s front door.
The two cities clearly benefit from each other, even as they try to talk past one another. Hong Kong is the traditional entry point of western investment. Shenzhen is racing to overtake Shanghai as the Mecca of Chinese entrepreneurship. Investors love entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs need investors. The two cities are a match made in heaven.
Just don’t expect them to exchange Christmas presents this winter. One’s not interested, and the other’s not participating.