A robot from UBTech Robotics stands in the reception area of the company's headquarters in Shenzhen, China. The city, a technology hotbed, is one of 11 included in China’s Greater Bay Area plan. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News)

In the late 1970s, leaders in Beijing made a history-shaping decision: To turn an area in southern China into a freewheeling business zone that would help propel the country’s economic rise.

Forty years later, they are looking again to the region for growth — or so they hope.

The Chinese government on Monday unveiled a blueprint to knit the semiautonomous enclaves of Hong Kong and Macau with Shenzhen, Guangzhou and seven other mainland cities into a tech, financial and academic hub. The goal is to could compete with innovation cradles such as Silicon Valley, Seattle or New York.

The scope of the “Greater Bay Area” plan, as it is called, is vast. It covers an area the size of Croatia, with 70 million people and a combined gross domestic product that would rank in the world’s top 15 if it were a separate country.

The plan envisions Hong Kong preserving its status as a financial hub and contributing research know-how from its respected universities; Shenzhen, the mainland tech hotbed that is home to the Huawei and Tencent conglomerates, cultivating an insurance industry; and Macau leading the way in tourism and currency trading.

Nine of the cities would start tech incubators. Funding would be poured into regional centers developing nanomaterials, telecommunications and other technologies. And all of it would be tied together with next-generation “Smart City” Internet infrastructure.

Pedestrians walk up a flight of steps of an underground passage in Shenzhen. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News)

In many ways, the document released by China’s cabinet, the State Council, crystallizes long-standing and sometimes controversial efforts by Beijing to integrate Hong Kong — a former British colony that was guaranteed autonomy as part of its 1997 handover agreement — with the mainland through both visible infrastructure projects and the steady rollback of political freedoms.

Chinese President Xi Jinping last year attended a ribbon-cutting for the world’s longest bridge, linking Hong Kong with the city of Zhuhai in Guangdong province, and the territory also opened a new stop that connects it to mainland China’s highly developed high-speed rail network.

But “the vision of the Greater Bay Area is far more than just a bridge or a railway,” said professor Chen Guanghan of Sun Yat-sen University’s Research Institute of the Development of Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau. “No country has ever tried something like this before, merging different tax and customs and legal systems.”

The plan will give Hong Kong citizens, who face a stagnant economy and notoriously high real estate prices, an outlet to find jobs and affordable homes, supporters like Chen say. It would also give the city, which has been slowly ceding to China its crown as a financial nexus, a shot at redefining itself as part of a tech hub and an entree to invest in the mainland.

“If you look at New York — after the 2008 financial crisis, they also said they need to develop tech, and they developed it pretty well,” Chen said. “The Greater Bay Area plan can give Hong Kong and Macau a new momentum, a new area of growth.”

A worker's face is illuminated while using a smartphone at night in Shenzhen. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News)

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who has been accused by political foes of yielding to Beijing’s encroaching influence since entering office in 2017, dismissed suggestions that the plan was foisted upon her and urged citizens to consider its upsides.

Only the people of Hong Kong will decide whether they will “seize the opportunities to improve Hong Kong’s economy and our people’s livelihoods,” she told reporters in Hong Kong on Tuesday. “The central government has never told me to do this or do that, but they’ve given us a direction, a framework and an opportunity that Hong Kong can grasp.”

But if Hong Kong does not seize the chance, its boat will sail, Lam added, citing a Cantonese aphorism that Xi has deployed to exhort Hong Kong to collaborate with, rather than resist, the mainland.

The blueprint is a reminder of how Beijing dangles economic carrots and wields political sticks to bring to heel territories it considers its own — from Hong Kong to de facto independent Taiwan, critics say. Hong Kong, which has put political dissidents on trial and expelled a foreign journalist in the past year, is also currently mulling an extradition agreement with mainland China.

“For Hong Kong to grasp its best opportunity is for us to face the international world, not to face the Greater Bay Area,” said Joshua Wong, a pro-democracy activist who has been jailed for his role in the city’s Occupy protests in 2014. “It’s wiping away Hong Kong’s special status as a global center on par with New York and London. Can this plan be realized while upholding two different legal systems? There’s doubt about that.”

Other critics say the plan, which is expected to be defined by 2022 and realized by 2035, is so far lacking in meaningful details and may be merely symbolic.

“If some property developer wants to buy something in Guangdong or invest in a factory, he’s going to do it anyway,” said Andrew Collier of the Hong Kong research firm Orient Capital Research. “What’s the change? The biggest change has been the bridge, and that’s been a complete waste of money.”

But supporters of the plan say both Hong Kong and China need to take the long view.

Even though opposition politicians and civil society groups widely fear that mainland China’s influence is undermining political freedoms in Hong Kong, a more integrated region could mean that some of Hong Kong’s characteristics — intellectual property protections, low corruption and rule of law — could conversely rub off on southern China, said Wong Kam Fai, the associate dean of engineering at Chinese University in Hong Kong.

“There is a lot of talk of the pros and cons of ‘one country, two systems,’ and there are problems, I must admit, but there are also advantages,” Wong said.

“The first few years is actually about breaking down the walls between cities, and that’s why this document is very, very important.”