Can a Disputed Patch of Land Reinvigorate Hong Kong’s Tech Scene?

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The Lok Ma Chau Loop is a sprawling, swampy stretch of land on Hong Kong’s northernmost border with China. It was once the focus of a land dispute between the two entities. But when China straightened the Shenzhen River in 1997, which runs alongside its eponymous megacity, it deemed the Loop part of Hong Kong.

Twenty years later the Loop looks set to become one of Asia’s most exciting tech hubs–and a source of cooperation between the autonomous republic and Beijing, a relationship that has strained in recent years amid political and human rights incidents.

The Hong Kong/Shenzhen Innovation Park, which will comprise the majority of the 87-hectare site, will aim for greater collaboration across the border, and increased innovation in one of Asia’s four traditional ‘tiger’ economies.

The territory’s economy, dominated by finance, was slow to embrace the startup crowd. But funding today is soaring. And initiatives like Alibaba’s $130 million Hong Kong Investment Program are enticing more young professionals into the entrepreneurial landscape. Tax regimes have been simplified and the territory was recently ranked among the world’s best tech ecosystems by e-commerce firm Compass.

The park was originally mooted back in 2007. And while some are thrilled at the prospect of more business with Shenzhen, home to tech giants like Tencent; Huawei; BYD; Konka and Coolpad, others are worried that Lok Ma Chau has fallen out of the tech loop in the intervening decade.

“I hope as the government and the secretary set up the committee, it must fully consult the industry, to see how the project can help them,” IT lawmaker Charles Mok told the Hong Kong Free Press. Some have questioned why the existing Hong Kong Science Park, in more central Pak Shek Kok, was chosen to develop the new site.

“If you ask employees to work at Science Park or (fellow site) Cyberport, they may complain it is too far away. It is hard to imagine this place…will be convenient to work at,” Mok added.

Others have warned of an ecological disaster, as the Loop is home to several species of migratory birds, rare fish species and butterflies.

But industry leaders are cooing at the prospect of a 1.2m sq m facility, over 90% of which will be dedicated to high innovation including biotech; robotics; fintech and smart city solutions. Planners estimate that the park will add 40,000 jobs to the local economy.

Don’t expect rows over politics and freedom of movement to die any time soon: Hong Kong and Beijing are still at loggerheads over several aspects of the latter’s ‘One Country, Two Systems’ philosophy. Just this week thousands marched in protest at China’s attempts to disbar pro-democracy lawmakers.

Lok Ma Chau’s potential to draw more talent from the mainland, and away from Hong Kongers, has already caused some ripples in local media. But above all tech chiefs hope the long-disputed spit can help bridge business and social divides–and enliven a tech ecosystem already competing on the global stage.