Hong Kong and the World City

Hong Kong has always occupied a unique place in the global consciousness.  For many years, it was the West’s gateway to China and Asia – offering an accessible, neatly packaged and ‘sanitised’ version of ‘Asia’.  Hong Kong fell under the control of the British after the First Opium War when Hong Kong Island was ceded ‘in perpetuity’ to the British Colonial authorities under the Treaty of Nanking, with Kowloon following shortly thereafter. The New Territories made up the final addition to Hong Kong’s current territory when they were leased to the British for 99 years in 1898.  Its colonisation a near constant source of Chinese annoyance and embarrassment, the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 eventually paved the way for the resumption of Chinese sovereignty in 1997 and the designation of Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region (SAR).

Image courtesy of kudomomo © 2011, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of kudomomo © 2011, some rights reserved

Attempting to capitalise on this sui generis nature and its ‘East meets West’ quality, the government of the Hong Kong SAR has attempted to cultivate a brand for Hong Kong as ‘Asia’s World City’.[1]  Place branding is nothing new.  However, Hong Kong’s attempts to tap into the notion of the ‘world city’ are extremely interesting and perhaps telling of a wider change in the status and role of cities globally.  In seeking to carve itself out a niche in the global economy, Hong Kong has attempted to link itself to a wider ‘global network’ of cities and urban areas – imagining a role for them globally equal to or possibly even surpassing that of the state.

The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman famously proclaimed the future of the world and the global economy to be ‘flat’, insofar as globalisation and its accompanying processes such as the spread of information technologies would act as a ‘great equaliser’ – enabling people all over the world to compete in the global economy as ‘equals’.  In contrast to this, however, urban studies theorist Richard Florida argues the world to be ‘spiky’, with spatially distinct and diverged concentrations or nodes of economic activity globally.[2]   As the world’s interconnectedness grows, an irresistible by-product of the globalisation juggernaut, global economic processes will become more spatially concentrated in different areas.

Saskia Sassen, a Professor of Sociology at Columbia University in New York, argues these concentrations to form a network of global cities – these changes in the fundamental structure of the global economy emblematic of a new phase in the history of the world economy.[3]  Sassen sees the process of globalisation coupled with deregulation and privatisation, as leading to the creation of ‘spatially dispersed, yet globally integrated’ nodes of coordination and organisation in the global economy.[4]  As evidence of her thesis, Sassen points to a range of factors such as the parallel changes experienced in the economies of major cities reflective of their greater role in an international economic order and the process of urbanisation globally – by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. [5],[6]

Thus, in the future the global city will occupy a key role in the global economy, functioning as what Sassen terms ’urban vectors’  – the infrastructure of the global economy.[7]   Its role becoming greater and greater as globalisation erodes further the artificial and almost arbitrary national state boundary constructions.  Indeed, for instance Sassen argues that the ‘geopolitical vector’ of Chicago, New York and Washington DC will soon become more geopolitically important than the US to the global economy.[8]

In attempts to join this global elite, Hong Kong has initiated a wide range of programmes and policies in addition to the branding campaign.  Through infrastructure projects such as the Cyberport, an information technology hub in the west of Hong Kong Island, it has attempted to capitalise on its already world-class infrastructure (ranked number one by the World Economic Forum in four successive years) – seen as key by Sassen to a global city’s status.[9]  Additionally, through government agencies such as Invest HK, attempts have been made at attracting foreign direct investment and encouraging international firms to consider basing their business in Hong Kong.

Only time will tell how successful Hong Kong’s attempts to tap in to this global network ultimately are.  However, what is certain is the emergence of this global network of sub-state entities which will become large economic and political actors in their own right.  This elevation of ‘global cities’ leads to a multiplicity of implications for the international political environment.  Attempts at providing some form of standardisation around the multiple, piecemeal international regimes sure to emerge could possibly lead to some form of greater global governance.  Whilst, at the very least, there will surely be a much greater degree of inter-state policy coordination.  This erosion of the state, long favoured as at least a prime unit of analysis in international relations, and the elevation of global cities will thus surely be a key area of interest in the future.

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