Q&A | Brian Davidson British Consul-General to Hong Kong and Macau

UK Consulate to boost trade with SAR, pledges to support GBA development

As the SAR is moving towards a post-Covid era, it is high time to think about the future of the relationship between UK and Macau and the British businesses in the city in a more targeted and strategic way, according to the British Consul-General to Hong Kong and Macau, Brian Davidson.

In an exclusive interview with the Times, the diplomat seasoned in Sino-British relations said that the consulate has plans to visit the town regularly where it would focus its efforts “where it can make a difference for the development of Macau and promotion of British interests” in the SAR.

Speaking on GBA and the SARs’ integration in the development plan, Davidson is confident that the UK can significantly contribute in several strand of activities including technology, data, pharmaceutical and health.

It was four years ago when, Chinese authorities unveiled the outline development plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-
Macao Greater Bay Area, aiming to develop the city cluster into a quality living circle for living, working, health care and traveling. 

Davidson has also admitted that there is a “slightly colder relationship between London and Beijing,” yet he pledged to provide support in several areas of collaboration, as well as to “provide a mature, robust framework for the relationship.”

Macau Daily Times (MDT) — This is your first official visit to Macau since you took up the post in July 2021, and first visit of the consulate since the pandemic. Tell us how the talks with local officials have gone so far.

Brian Davidson (BD) — It has been three years coming and we’re sort of very excited to understand a little bit more about what’s happening in Macau. Not just about the business opportunities but also about what Macau’s objectives are for its own development. I had a good meeting with the Chief Executive and most of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. [It was] really to try and get a sense on the ground of what diversification of economy actually means, because I think what we’re looking for in the UK are areas where we can actually support Macau’s growth […] and part of that is linked to Macau’s role in the Greater Bay Area (GBA). So synergies between Hong Kong and Macau in terms of their contribution to the GBA project and especially in particularly areas in Macau, […] which fits with UK expertise and interests.

MDT — What has the main focus of the talks in this three-day official visit?

BD — Normally, we’d have a shorter visit with a particular focus. I’ve done most of the official meetings. The trade investment team had been talking to the gaming industry and hospitality, and talking about Macau’s development. The one area that we probably haven’t covered properly is Hengqin and what that means in terms of the structure in the administration […] and what that tells us about the future trajectory of integration and GBA and so […] I hope to come back and have a more detailed conversation.

We [also] spoke with the cultural bureau [on] […] some of the software elements of Macau’s development. What the opening of the border now means for collaboration on culture, entertainment and sporting events where the UK can be involved, as we have a strong cultural profile. It has been a while since we have had that volume of activity [and place in] the synergy we might be doing in UK. We can capture that [and so] make sure we’re also contributing to the development here.

We also sort of had a session with British nationals […] and sort of introduced ourselves. It’s a newish team after three years without a visit. To get a sense of what their interests are, what issues they face, and obviously they gave us a good perspective on the way Macau was evolving. It’s been a great trip. It has opened my eyes a bit to some of the opportunities too. Realistically, […] Macau is a smaller [part of our mission] compared our responsibility [in Hong Kong]. [However,] it’s an important part of why we do what we do and I want to make sure that we’re visiting more regularly and that were focusing our efforts where it can make a difference for the development of Macau and promotion of British interests here.

I think there’s an opportunity now, as everything is restarting, to think about the future of the relationship between UK and Macau and the British businesses in Macau in a more targeted and strategic way; and using the resources we have to maximum advantage.

MDT — With all these integrations of Hong Kong and Macau into the GBA, the opportunities are huge for several sectors. Are there also big opportunities for acquiring UK expertise? Also, Macau is considered by some as just an account given that it represents small market compared to Hong Kong. Do you see it that way?

BD — I think I would say they are less theoretical. […] A lot of discussions on the GBA were quite… I wouldn’t say academic, but much more in theory rather than in practice. […] But I think now that travel is completely free between the various two SARs and the mainland, I’m confident we will start to see some of those concepts and initiatives taking shape. […] The whole project of GBA is so massive. Inevitably, a lot of people are trying to [understand that] it’s a work plan, but actually it’s a concept with different strands about development and integration. For us it’s trying to identify which are the fastest moving, which are the most in synergy with UK interests. […]

I don’t think Macau is just an account. I think there are some very discreet and important [elements,] looking at the scale of the economy here. There is a discreet strand of activities that we should be looking at more carefully. It’s not just around infrastructure. Obviously with tech, data, pharmaceutical and health are areas where there are huge strengths in the UK. I think there’s potential opportunity here for more on that. That’s something I’d like the team to look at a bit closely.

MDT — As a diplomat seasoned in Sino-British relations, are there plans to organize joint initiatives with other diplomatic representatives in Macau and Hong Kong – mainly with EUís and Commonwealth countries?

BD — I think I’d say there should be. I think we all have slightly different business interests. But I think what unites us all is actually understanding the assessment and the opportunities in the broader GBA context.

Hong Kong is organizing a trip for consul generals to Guangdong. […] it has been worthwhile. […]

Obviously we discuss this a lot in Hong Kong and with the Portuguese Consul General here. [..] I think there was an opportunity to compare notes and understand a bit better to how we can engage individually and collectively.

MDT — Was there a change from before to after the pandemic, through the period when tight restrictions were in place? Did this pose a challenge to the consulateís works?

BD — The pandemic obviously presented different challenges in terms of isolation. There were challenges around movement. During the pandemic, we did quite a lot on the trade and investment side because a lot can be done remotely. I think the main focus shifted to concern for [UK] nationals and supporting the government in their own pandemic responses.

On the [UK] national side, […] we tried to understand what the regulations were, how can we support British nationals, and particularly those who needed wand want to travel back to the UK, and see family and those who had to move on.

[We provided assistance by showing British nationals] how to access flights and understand what the regulations were. I think nationals within the territories were being accommodated by the governments, and [we helped them] understand how to comply with local regulations. […] on the other side, there was a lot of communication with government concerning the health situation and sharing information on what we see of the Covid trends, vaccines and solutions […].

Post-pandemic, it isn’t quite a return to business as usual. I think the opportunities are to do things differently. I think that has given us time to prepare our thinking in terms of when borders are open. What can we actually do to engage more effectively and more strategically?

The effects start from here. We can actually be a bit better in how we do things.

That’s partly why I brought the team here, not just to leap in and pick up existing opportunities, but to think carefully where we can add some value as a government, […] and where it is that our input will be most useful, whether it’s for the government or businesses here.

That’s the difference. Not just in terms of post pandemic, but pre-pandemic and post pandemic, we’re looking at things in a slightly different way. It’s an opportunity for everyone to restart.

MDT — Do you find your role difficult amid a quasi-hostile UK-China relations?

BD — There’s no avoiding the fact that the relationship between UK and China is […] slightly more contentious than it used to be. When I left Shanghai in 2015, it was a golden era. We’re clearly in a different position now. That is partly a reflection of geopolitics, and domestic politics in UK and China. So inevitably, I think there is a slightly colder relationship between London and Beijing which inevitably reflects our relationship here as part of the group. However, I think that is something that as diplomats, we are used to seeing.

I have been involved as a diplomat in China for over 30 years. And there are peaks and troughs in any relationship. There are areas where you’re going to disagree and areas where you want to work more and collaborate. What I seek to do is to help provide a mature, robust framework for the relationship, so that the areas we disagree do not pollute the areas where we agree and where we can work together.

[Also, my role is to] to try and make sure we have a complete view of the relationship as it applies to Hong Kong and Macau. […]. I would say that for Hong Kong, given the colonial past, there’s a particular sense of sensitivity, which I fully understand we need to factor that in. We don’t have that here.

I would say that the job is difficult. There are different challenges in it. I am 100% passionate and committed to get the most out of this relationship. That means being able to discuss some of the difficult areas but it also means being able to support some of the areas of collaboration. [Those areas of collaboration] might be against global challenges like healthcare or climate and sustainably, or to help driving up the economic prosperity of both sides through more collaboration between business people to people links, sporting and cultural links, you name it. I don’t think it’s difficult anymore. Broadly speaking, what’s difficult is that the [opportunities] would be different if I were in Thailand or in Shanghai.

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