HK's relation with Russia offers huge future potential

Updated: 2014-02-24 06:46

By Peter Gordon(HK Edition)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

In his recent book Glorious Misadventures about Russia's attempts to colonize North America two centuries ago, Owen Matthews discusses the trade that underpinned it all: Furs, especially sea otter pelts destined for Canton, where they went for "100 Spanish dollars per pelt, nearly two years' salary for an ordinary seaman." Hong Kong, it might be said, admittedly with some hyperbole, was central to Russia's international strategy even before it was conceded to the British. It might also be noted that opium was not, contrary to what was said then and often since, the only foreign product that could profitably be sold in Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) China. Both Russians and Americans traded large amounts of fur in China; indeed, the sea otter was hunted almost to extinction to supply the Chinese market.

Such thoughts came to mind as I listened to a rather sparsely attended investment seminar given here recently by the government of St. Petersburg. Hong Kong and St. Petersburg have, superficially, much in common: Both were founded in places most considered unsuitable for human habitation, one labeled a "barren rock" and the other a pestilential swamp; both were founded specifically to bring Asia and Europe together; both were and are major ports; the populations of both suffered terrible deprivation during World War II and both showed great fortitude in adversity.

But if Hong Kong businesspeople wish to sink money into car parks and industrial estates - for such were the sort of projects being presented - in a country which isn't as yet, and all progress notwithstanding, renowned globally for its commitment to transparency and rule of law, there is such a place closer to home and with which Hong Kong shares a language.

HK's relation with Russia offers huge future potential

Nevertheless, as I have noted on several occasions before, Russia is-and has been since 1997-no longer a large but obscure place on the far side of China, but rather Hong Kong's largest neighbor: If Hong Kong wishes to be China's New York, it can't ignore China's Canada. It is an imperfect analogy, of course, but the Russian and Chinese economies are to a considerable extent synergistic: Russia has resources, China has people, manufacturing and markets - much as it was, in fact, when the Russian fur trade underpinned Russian expansion through Siberia and across the Pacific.

The synergies between Hong Kong and St. Petersburg are unlikely to be seen in the sorts of infrastructure projects normally touted. These probably lie elsewhere: St. Petersburg has, for example, a surfeit of cultural resources. The Hermitage Museum has a branch in Amsterdam which is currently showing an exhibit of Silk Road artifacts. Amsterdam is, as far as the Silk Road is concerned, something of a detour. A branch of the Hermitage here - perhaps in the big currently empty space in the West Kowloon Cultural District - would cement ties between the two cities located at their respective edges of Eurasia. Russia, of which St. Petersburg has reasonable claims to be the cultural capital, has large supplies of musicians, opera singers, painters and other "cultural experts and professionals". China is still a relatively virgin market for Western cultural goods and services with much less competition than in the West from other established practitioners. Indeed, a small but welcome colony of Russian artists has established itself in Hong Kong and Macao.

Similarly, Russia has a surfeit of intellectual and, in particular, technological human capital. Some of this, as far as China is concerned, is involved in trade which in a more perfect world we might prefer didn't exist - jet fighters and the like. But if Hong Kong wanted to leapfrog up the innovation ladder - a combination of the mainland markets, Hong Kong finance, business expertise and intellectual property protection with Russian human and intellectual capital - would seem a configuration worth exploring further.

It's also often forgotten that most of Russia lies closer to home, in Asia. Siberia and, especially, the Russian Far East have been rather neglected by Russia over the decades. This leaves intrepid entrepreneurs with opportunities in addition to challenges. Chinese mainland businessmen have been active there for more than two decades. Russians are in general well aware of the benefits of what Hong Kong offers as a place to domicile mainland business. However, Russia is perhaps the one country in the world where mainland businessmen and traders beat Hong Kong to the punch. When Hong Kong businessmen arrived, they found mainland traders already in operation with more direct experience in Russia than perhaps any other foreign country.

Russia deserves more attention than it usually receives here in Hong Kong, but wishful thinking and good intentions will only get one so far. What is needed is more focus on the actual synergies between the two places - and some creative thinking, especially when it comes to the creative industries Hong Kong says it wishes to promote.

The author is a Hong Kong-based entrepreneur who was active in promoting Hong Kong-Russian trade and investment from the final days of the USSR through 2000. He helped found a Russian chamber of commerce in Hong Kong in 1994. He now works mostly in IT and publishing.

(HK Edition 02/24/2014 page1)