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The Qianhai area, a pilot free-trade zone in Shenzhen, where Hong civil servants took part in an exchange programme. Photo: Getty Images

No wallets in Shenzhen? Hong Kong civil servants back from exchange share expertise, lessons from mainland counterparts

  • Exchange programme gives officials insights into nation’s policy direction, development trends, history and culture
  • Group of 10 officers spent three months attached to mainland agencies, taking part in field trips and exchanges

A group of 10 Hong Kong civil servants have just returned from three months in the neighbouring mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen, where they shared their expertise as well as learned from counterparts across the border.

Carmen Chan Suet-ying, a senior town planner in the Hong Kong Planning Department, said she was asked a lot of questions about building a pedestrian walkway network during her stint at the Authority of the Qianhai Shenzhen-Hong Kong Modern Service Industry Cooperation Zone.

“On the second day I started working there, the mainland civil servants eagerly sought advice from me,” she said. “They think Hong Kong is a veteran in this area.”

She added mainland planners wanted to know which of two commercial buildings should be responsible for building a connecting footbridge, who would manage it after it was completed and what they should consider when planning accessibility facilities.

(From left) Hong Kong civil servants Chan Fei-fei, Carmen Chan and Frankie Tai, who have completed a three-month exchange programme with the Shenzhen Qianhai Authority and Shenzhen Municipal Transport Bureau. Photo: May Tse

Chan said Hong Kong planners drew on their experience in building the Central elevated walkway, the extensive footbridge network spanning Admiralty, Central and parts of Sheung Wan.

The group was the biggest to spend time across the border since the government exchange programme started in 2002. They also spent the longest time there, as most previous exchanges lasted just four weeks.

The Hong Kong civil servants played mainly a consultant role during the exchange, but Chan said they picked up some useful information as well.

“The devotion and determination shown by our mainland counterparts in implementing national policies is something we Hong Kong government workers can and should learn,” she added.

Frankie Tai Lap-for, a senior engineer in the Transport Department, was attached to Shenzhen’s transport bureau and helped with a project to improve public transport connections in Shenzhen’s Futian district, near the border.

That included advice on making direction signs clearer and moving taxi ranks to more convenient spots for cross-border travellers.

Tai added the exchange left him in awe of how technology was used so extensively on the mainland.

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“When I took out my wallet, my mainland colleagues were so surprised, joking and asking what it was, because wallets are rarely seen in Shenzhen,” he said. “Electronic payment penetrates every aspect of life.”

Chan Fei-fei, a career development manager with the Civil Service Bureau, which manages government employees, said the time she spent in Shenzhen’s Qianhai commercial zone helped her understand the difficulties Hong Kong enterprises faced in opening a business in mainland China.

She was also involved in negotiations between the Qianhai authorities and three operators to tackle expensive data services, a common problem faced by Hong Kong businesses in the area.

“But luckily we have addressed that one common headache – there is now a cheaper mobile data service on offer to them,” she said.

There were about 9,790 Hong Kong companies with operations in the Qianhai zone last year.

The city officials said they also went on field visits to a variety of sites in the area, including the China National Gene Bank, the headquarters of BYD, the world’s largest electric vehicle maker, and the Yantian International Container Terminal.

The Hong Kong civil servants worked in district management, technology development, town planning, transport and environmental protection.

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The annual exchange programme, the first since Hong Kong resumed quarantine-free travel with the mainland in February last year, was held after the city’s administration signed a cooperation deal with municipal authorities in the Greater Bay Area last September.

The Greater Bay Area is Beijing’s plan to link Hong Kong, Macau and nine mainland cities to create an economic powerhouse.

The exchange scheme was designed to deepen Hong Kong government employees’ understanding of the country’s policy direction, development trends, history and culture.

Each side will send 10 civil servants to the other for three months, with the costs borne by the originating authority, so Hong Kong will pay its civil servants working on the mainland and the Chinese authorities will pay for their staff who cross the border to work.

Recent exchanges have happened amid an exodus of Hong Kong civil servants since the 2019 social unrest and Beijing’s imposition of the national security law in 2020.

There were more than 3,863 resignations in the 2022-23 financial year and 3,734 in the previous year.

Hong Kong and mainland government officials were sent on temporary postings – often for four weeks – in each other’s institutions under an earlier exchange programme, which started in 2002.

About 150 Hongkongers, including the latest group, have spent time in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Changsha and cities in Guangdong province.