In October, during the 40th anniversary of the Shenzhen special economic zone, President Xi Jinping encouraged young people in Hong Kong and Macau to study and work on the mainland to strengthen their “sense of belonging”.
Recently, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor unveiled the Greater Bay Area Youth Employment Scheme which, by partially funding 2,000 positions, encourages companies in the region to create jobs for Hong Kong’s young people.
China has transformed incredibly since it started reforming and opening up more than four decades ago. But many Hongkongers continue to hold biased and outdated views of the mainland.
In the early 1990s, right after Deng Xiaoping’s landmark visit to Shenzhen to emphasise China’s commitment to reform, I started working in China, helping to run the new Shanghai office for Boston Consulting Group. Multinational companies came in droves to investigate if and how they should enter the Chinese market, and many hired us for help.
While the multinationals paid our bills, the local Chinese companies were more intriguing to me. Though the notion of strategy was new for them, they were curious to see how Western firms managed their businesses and were eager to learn.
I have commuted regularly between the mainland and Hong Kong for close to 30 years, seeing how the two places have developed and crossed paths. As someone born and raised in Hong Kong but with an American education and work experience, my background gives me a unique vantage point.
I believe Hongkongers, especially our young people, should pay close attention to the opportunities brought about by China’s innovation and entrepreneurship.
Driven by changes in technology, government policies and consumer demand, China has transformed significantly over the past several decades. The private sector has become an important part of the economy.
According to Evergrande Research Institute, China’s private sector has made a “456789” contribution to the economy: with 40 per cent of bank loans, it has contributed more than 50 per cent of tax revenues, 60 per cent of the gross domestic product, 70 per cent of technological advances, 80 per cent of urban employment and makes up 90 per cent of enterprises.
With smartphones and the explosive growth of the mobile internet, new business models have mushroomed, with companies such as Huawei, Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi, Pinduoduo, and ByteDance becoming prominent.
In the 2020 Hurun Global Unicorn Index – a list of private start-ups worth at least US$1 billion – 227 are from China, second only to the US which has 233. Interestingly, of the world’s 10 most valuable unicorns, six are Chinese.
As China’s entrepreneurship evolves, several characteristics have emerged. First, entrepreneurship is spread out geographically, across top- and lower-tier cities. Second, entrepreneurs are becoming younger; many are millennials and those born post-1990.
Third, innovation is becoming evident in many sectors, such as consumer goods, smart appliances, health services, cars, mobility, energy, environment, manufacturing and automation, as well as smart cities, and the companies are targeting not just consumers, but also businesses and the government.
Fourth, innovation is taking place with significant speed and intensity, with strong state support a key driver. Last year, China spent nearly US$324 billion in research and development, 2.2 per cent of its GDP.
Years into the mobile internet era and having benefited from the innovations it catalysed, China is entering a new tech era featuring artificial intelligence, the internet of things, 5G and blockchain – all of which offer even bigger and better opportunities for young entrepreneurs.
Many business leaders today are “serial entrepreneurs” who have failed many times before. Such failures are no longer stigmatised in China; on the contrary, learning from failure is highly regarded.
Beyond materialistic gains, innovation enriches one’s creativity, mindset and values. China has become the world’s largest business laboratory, where companies, private or state-owned, participate in business experiments that offer ample opportunities to hone their skills and unleash their potential.
Many who were born or raised in Hong Kong and who went to China have done very well. They include Victor Koo Wing-cheung, who founded pioneering video platform Youku, Dick Wang Wei, founder and chairman of logistics giant SF Express, former Ping An Insurance Group president Louis Cheung Chi Yan and Tencent Holdings president Martin Lau Chi-ping.
Over the years, I have also recruited young people from Hong Kong (as well the mainland). They have turned out to be incredibly adaptive to the mainland work culture and business environment, and have done very well.
The Greater Bay Area is a natural place for our young people to venture into, as are Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, whether working for corporations or as entrepreneurs. Working in China often means more than just a job, but also new vision, knowledge and perspectives, which become personal assets.
Of course, China is far from perfect, and many problems remain – as with many other places including Hong Kong and Western countries. The Chinese government continues to address imperfections and is consistently making progress. The general public is also opening up and becoming more sophisticated. We should focus more on the leadership’s intentions and the development trajectory, and less on the past.
Hongkongers should not be too fixated with Hong Kong per se. We are Hongkongers, we are Chinese, and we are also global citizens. Today we can be in Hong Kong; tomorrow we can be on the mainland; and overseas the day after. Thereafter, we can return to Hong Kong. With knowledge, skills and the ability to think and judge, we can exercise our potential anywhere.
The mainland offers a much larger playing field for Hong Kong’s young people and my suggestion would be: take advantage of it.