Opening: a leap of faith, trust and belief


In much of the public and official communication on the Greater Bay Area, the general concept of an opening up and an internationalisation is referred to. China Daily recently stated “As China is opening wider to the world, more opportunities will arise.” While the specific nature of those opportunities and through what mechanisms they are to be operationalized to achieve substantive outcomes are taking shape, airtime has been given to safe and generous forms of facilitation: international exchange and study trips, trade forums and cultural connections – all valuable interactive processes.

Part of the explanation for lack of clarity over what the future will look like is the dynamic tension between “opening up” and protectionism: protecting local industry, culture, employment, ways of thinking and knowing, and even national loyalty and allegiance. Much in the same way that the pros and cons of globalisation have been argued in International Business Strategy, Global Economics, and even Colonial Anthropology for eons, that balance between the trade-offs in the risk/return calibration is on a knife-edge. The benefits of opening up can include an additional vibrance in an economy and communities through trade, investment, exchange of ideas, human understanding, innovation and travel. The downsides (whether they be perceived or real, politically advantageous or otherwise) of foreign interference, impacts upon local identity and traditions, leakage of sensitive information and data outwards, and seepage of detrimental ideologies inwards all require thoughtful management in an open economy. 

That tension between an apprehension on the one hand and a vision of a shared partnership in the GBA on the other is playing out in front of us. As the twists and flows of geopolitical tensions wax and wane, it can seem that one day we are showcased a melding of ideas and peoples in a generosity of spirit, and the next moment hamstrung by restrictive systems (in the form of application of laws and regulations, and hard-nosed bureaucratic responses) seemingly underpinned by caution and fear that put structural barriers in place. Here in Macau we continue to be perplexed by instances of Blue Card, residency applications/renewals and temporary work visa applications not being approved for people willing and able to contribute to the GBA vision – local employment protectionism is often lauded as valid justification. Macau’s current low 2.1% unemployment hints at dangers and potential inefficiencies in the economy that could benefit from the vigour that new people and their economic activity would alleviate.

Enabling the flow of valuable resources and, critically, people and ideas is critical to “the building of a new system of open economy in line with international standards; and the development of a new platform for high-level international cooperation” and “to better integrate into the global market system” as prioritised in the 2017 Outline Development Plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area. For there to “be accelerated development of the new system of an open economy, greater connectivity among Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macao markets, more effective and efficient flow of various resources and factors of production, and more vibrant cultural exchanges” existing hurdles and brick-walls need to be removed and bureaucratic mindsets replaced with agility and appreciation for nuance.

The higher the structural bureaucratic barriers to flows of information, data and other forms of capital, the more important the informal networks and human relationships become. Moreover, under circumstances of tension and geopolitical divide, the relationship linking one person to another person is the primary building block to overcome barriers caused by bureaucratic lag, information asymmetry, hurdles and barriers of all sorts, including the dismantling of international social cohesion.

If systems themselves are inclined to dismantle trust, relationships and personal information networks can fill the vacuum. Strategic decisions in business can then still be made with reference to a solid foundation of knowledge of the circumstances on the ground that reflect reality rather than having to resort to minimally publicly available or ill-informed information. Author and consultant Gabor Holch in his book “Dragon Suits” has spoken of this information asymmetry in the context of multinationals in China: host country local managers have a view of unbridled optimism in the Chinese economy and market situation but due to data and information restrictions beyond China, multi-national parent companies hold an alternative data reality: “one living in fear of exaggerated dangers and the other in a curated wonderland of opportunities.” It is in this space that expatriates and other multi-cultural and multi-lingual managers work to access accurate on-the-ground information and nurture personal networks to build trust and dialogue, and lift the fog on filtered data, so as to help investors and companies across borders make well-founded decisions.

The above is just one example of the function of personal interaction for business, economic, cultural and knowledge exchange. Professor Tang Lixing, in his interview in MDT in previous weeks, spoke of the value for Macau in opening education to international exchange and dialogue in order to overcome misunderstandings between communities of people from different origins. Macau has long had a unique position at east/west cross-roads, and had an enviable international vibrancy in its tertiary institutions, albeit this seems to have retrograded over the last few years. Anecdotally Macau’s education sector appears no longer as diverse as it once was, although those figures are now difficult to compare: in the 2010/2011 academic year 25% of all teachers in Macau were born outside China, Macau and HK; figures for tertiary teachers from outside those areas for 2018 and 2023 were about 9%.

Professor Tang is in favour of more cultural exchange and recommends an increase in the number of foreign students and scholars. An active encouragement for educational institutions to invite suitable visiting professors (even on a short-term basis) of the institution’s own choosing unencumbered by bureaucratic stumbling blocks, would increase diversity in this sector and facilitate the development of human connection. It is the experience of interacting and learning to communicate with people of different backgrounds and cultures in a relatively safe environment – such as in the learning and creative spaces – that builds the confidence and skills for individuals to prepare the groundwork for the opening up of the GBA.

Safeguarding against broken trust, stalled dialogue, and costly and slow development caused by external factors takes a leap of faith in the power of human connection; protectionism merely undermines its progress.

*Contributing editor, scholar

Categories GBA Views