The conventional one-size-fits-all border control approach has shown its drawbacks. When it cuts off risks, it also blocks opportunities. A smarter way to protect our border is needed. Hong Kong and Guangdong province can be the vanguard in this innovation. If smart border control sounds strange to you, think of a smart city that uses digital technology to improve the management of a myriad of Hong Kong’s functions. Smart border control adopts suitable technologies to expedite the management of cross-border traffic, taking into account the need to process the voluminous amounts of immigration data in the process.
With the pandemic sweeping the world, more and more countries have imposed border restrictions to contain the transmission of COVID-19. By April, more than 90 percent of the world’s population, i.e., 7.1 billion people, lived in countries with travel restrictions.
In an emergency, such measures can work to protect people from unwanted risks. However, in the long term, massive lockdowns can hamper the circulation of the global production chain and disrupt individuals’ lives. In April, unemployment in Hong Kong hit 4.2 percent, the highest in nearly a decade. Cross-border commuters, about 100,000 of them, are no longer able to live in the way they used to. Families have been driven apart. Many of them are looking for new jobs to earn a living. The International Monetary Fund confirmed that the current economic downturn is the worst recession since the Great Depression, and far worse than the global financial crisis.
An alternative approach that smartly filters the risks while allowing the benefits to start flowing again is what we urgently need. A smart border can help keep the pandemic threat at bay while allowing limited cross-border traffic flow to maintain our economy. When COVID-19 practically paralyzed urban China early this year, any necessary travel had to report to the community management authority. Manually collected information through this approach soon proved inadequate. Fortunately, with the ubiquitous Alipay and WeChat services, e-registration makes understanding population movement much easier. The introduction of a QR health code system has helped restore travel beyond city and province in a less-risky and hassle-free manner. Against COVID-19, this e-certificate paves the way for the digital economy to continue to thrive.
A similar approach to utilize technology to smooth border control has already emerged in Hong Kong and Guangdong. Initially, it was a concept of using the health certificate as a pass for cross-border truck drivers to waive the 14-day compulsory quarantine. Later, this measure was upgraded to connect with an e-registration procedure. This small-scale experiment with truck drivers proved the viability of exempting quarantines for more cross-border commuters. Indeed, with the aid of available technology and a long-established cooperation mechanism between Hong Kong and Guangdong, the applicability scope of quarantine exemptions can and should be expanded. Together, the two localities can demonstrate to the world that pragmatic policy and technological innovations can overcome temporary cross-border difficulties. They can also maintain the economic interests of people on both sides.
Hong Kong and Guangdong can make agreements to recognize each other’s 14-day quarantine procedures using the e-registration method. Once the 14-day quarantine is recognized mutually, the exchange of people and resources, as well as ideas and collaboration, can resume reinvigorating the region. On top of that, if either side feels like adding virus detection as a prerequisite or safety backup for border crossing, the testing result should be mutually recognized, too. E-certificates can store testing results. All this information is instrumental in learning about the coronavirus. The integration of artificial intelligence in this process can help quickly calculate the transmission rate and plot the pattern.
The Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area framework has already provided the policy basis for the two neighbors to deepen their connections while appreciating their respective distinct systems and unique advantages. Taking this further, if Hong Kong and Guangdong start talking now, there is a distinct possibility that Macao and Zhuhai will follow suit and make similar arrangements.
Collectively, a regional smart border control mechanism will contribute to realizing the “quality living circle for living, working and traveling” — the ultimate goal of smart cities.
Lastly, let us not forget that border control is not just about the border itself. It involves potential identity clashes and the threat of privacy invasions and security issues. However, in order to move forward, we must think creatively and act positively.
COVID-19 will most certainly not be our last crisis. But we take heart in the truism that there is usually an opportunity embedded in a crisis. COVID-19 is no exception. It seems to have presented us the ideal circumstances to actualize our move toward a smart city starting with a smart border control scheme. This new smart control should be treated as just a harbinger of more improvements to come in a rejuvenated Hong Kong, where efficiency in many facets of city life can be further enhanced.
Dr. Coco DU is a research associate at the Institute for Public Policy, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and a fellow of Global Future Council on Agile Governance, the World Economic Forum.