China’s Greater Bay Area and Hong Kong Life Sciences

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One of the more eye-catching and ambitious initiatives to come out of last March’s National People’s Congress, Premier Li Keqiang’s grand vision for the cultivation of a globally competitive cluster of metropolises and “innovation super-hub” in China’s Greater Bay Area (GBA), is now starting to take shape as the country suddenly relaxes R&D funding restrictions on Hong Kong.

“I believe this policy shift is a real game changer that will unleash Chinese scientific creativity and innovation potential”

Henry Wong Nai-ching, CUHK

For many decades, Hong Kong’s scientific community found itself locked out of the sort of lucrative state funding rounds commonly experienced in Mainland China, but now all of that is set to change as the Xi Jinping administration seeks to nourish an innovation economy by breaking down historic structural silos. Following personal intervention by none other than President Xi himself, ministries and state organs have now issued a 12-point regulation on how central and regional authorities on the mainland must henceforth encourage educational institutions and state laboratories situated in the Specially Administered Regions (SARs) of Hong Kong and Macau to fully participate in Beijing’s funding and development schemes.

“I believe this policy shift is a real game changer that will unleash Chinese scientific creativity and innovation potential,” exclaims Professor Henry Wong Nai-ching, former dean of science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Until literally just the other day, state grants available to scientists could be as large as USD 158,000, but due to stringent foreign-exchange regulations, you could only properly tap into that funding pool if you possessed a laboratory on the mainland… now all of a sudden funding can be transferred directly to Hong Kong, and the tariffs on moving your equipment have simultaneously been greatly reduced meaning we’re going to see a great deal more cross-pollination of ideas and methodologies,” he exclaims.

The impetus for this abrupt change of policy direction is, of course, grand ambitions to transform what was previously referred to as the Pearl River Delta – comprising Hong Kong, Macao, and 9 major cities spread across Guangdong province – into a globally competitive world-class metropolis and innovation hub through integration and improved resource allocation. Unveiled during the National People’s Congress in March under the brand name “Greater Bay Area,” the project seeks to give rise to a new economic and entrepreneurial powerhouse comparable to other world-beating city clusters such as the Greater Tokyo Area, San Francisco Bay and Greater New York.

Zhang Xiaobo, director of the industry and information technology commission of Guangzhou, describes it thusly: “Guangdong and the SARs, by working in concert and harmony, seek to facilitate the development of an entirely new generation of information technology, artificial intelligence, and biological medicine, known collectively as IAB. With key cities like Guangzhou taking a lead, we strive to improve scientific-industrial quality and efficiency and render ourselves an innovation base for high-end equipment manufacturing, a model area integrating intelligent manufacturing and services, and a crucial pivot for the Belt and Road initiative.”

Needless to say, such programs are music to the ears of Hong Kong’s scientific community and life sciences industry, a high-performance powerhouse in its own right, but one that could benefit immeasurably from leveraging additional synergies with the mainland. “We have great expectations that these developments are just the opening salvo in a much broader opening up process that may be soon on the way as the Greater Bay Area concept gathers pace and gains traction,” reflects Chan Wai-yee, professor and director of the School of Biomedical Sciences at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“Under the prevailing legal framework, samples of human cells and blood are not yet allowed to be shipped to Hong Kong, which greatly hinders the local life science industry’s integration with the rest of the nation’s development because obviously the mainland possesses a bigger pool of samples, which is tremendously valuable in important aspects of medical science like genetic research, so we are very much hoping that anomalies like this can soon be addressed as well,” he asserts.

Many other members of the Hong Kong scientific establishment are equally optimistic. “I think it’s fair to say that many of us are looking to the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area project as a driver of deeper cross-boundary cooperation in innovation and technology and consider this juncture as a real opportunity to make a substantial leap forward,” says executive vice-president and provost of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), Shyy Wei.

“Leading higher educational institutions like ours have been fully committed to the Greater Bay Area blueprint right from inception, considering the project’s sheer potential in fostering scientific advancement and technology transfer, and, in our case we have already entered into close talks with Guangzhou authorities to set up an HKUST campus branch in the city in a way that broadly mirrors the increasingly harmonious collaborations that you are starting to see between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland,” he confides.

Moreover, according to Shyy, collaboration will be on a much more profound footing than previously the case. It is very much our intention that the new branch should complement our primary Hong Kong campus by focusing on things that can’t be done, or are difficult to complete, locally… what we are striving for is enduring synergies and chemical, irreversible, enduring impacts, rather than mere temporary physical reactions,” he affirms.

Writer: Louis Haynes

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