Three months of protests are hurting Hong Kong’s status as Asia’s key financial centre © Getty Images

What happens when you cannot fly out of a transport hub? This is what protesters wanted China to ponder as they blocked roads to Hong Kong’s airport over the weekend. Three months of violent protests are hurting the city’s status as Asia’s key financial centre. China wants to hedge its reliance on Hong Kong for global market access by offering Shenzhen as an alternative. A shift is unlikely.

The only obvious switch is in a surge in air passengers at Shenzhen, a 15-minute train ride away from Hong Kong, as flights were cancelled in the city. Shares of Shenzhen Airport Company have gained 35 per cent this year. Those of Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, 45 minutes away, are up 90 per cent.

The government wants Shenzhen to be more than a detour on the way to Hong Kong’s Central business district. It hopes to attract Asia-Pacific headquarters of multinationals and investment funds on three fronts: with free trade zones, relaxed visa requirements and pledges to reform regulations to match international standards. The “Greater Bay Area” initiative aims to link Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen and other cities into one business hub.

Yet Shenzhen lacks too many basics for multinationals to consider a move. There are concerns about the fairness and transparency of the legal system. The Chinese yuan is not convertible. Free movement of capital is not allowed. Even Chinese internet giant Tencent, which has its headquarters in Shenzhen, is listed in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s higher credit rating and the special trading status granted under the US-Hong Kong Policy Act are big advantages. US tariffs do not apply to Hong Kong. China’s free trade zones have fallen short of expectations. Surveillance on foreign companies is increasing. Censorship is a concern. 

Singapore remains the only sensible alternative for more than 1,500 multinational companies in Hong Kong. For now, the main advantage Shenzhen has as a city is easy access to Hong Kong. Its understudy position is underlined rather than undercut by the recent surge in air traffic.

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