Hong Kong has long been known as a dynamic hub for global finance, ranked alongside Shanghai, Shenzhen, Singapore, Tokyo and New York as a capital of the traditional monetary sector.
Now, a new race is well underway－the contest to serve as the world's leading center of innovative financial technology, including breakthroughs in the much-discussed development of digital payment systems.
"As Hong Kong is eyeing a bigger part in the Belt and Road Initiative, payment technology is where the city could come in," said Emil Chan, chief operations officer of CamClaim Ltd, a Hong Kong-based mobile commerce payment platform.
With trailblazers including Alipay and WeChat Pay losing no time to move the payment battle to new frontiers, incumbent payment operators in Hong Kong including the Octopus card and banks are being forced to innovate or risk being left behind.
"There is a bigger story, the story of how the worldwide payment turf war takes on a new significance," Chan noted. "It goes much further than the payment transaction itself. What matters is the big data behind transactions－the powerful resources that pioneering countries or regions today are virtually pinning their global tech ambitions on."
Amid the talk of Hong Kong's edge as a digital data exchange center along the Belt and Road route, the Asian financial hub should do more to stand at the forefront of the revolution, Chan added.
Google Cloud Platform will open an infrastructure region in Hong Kong this year, putting the city on course to become the platform's sixth region in the Asia-Pacific area, after Mumbai, Sydney, Singapore, Taiwan and Tokyo. In 2013, the company scrapped plans to build a data center in Hong Kong.
The American internet giant's decision fits in well with a major trend of large, nimble and deep-pocketed mainland companies emerging as the new growth engine for Hong Kong's data center market. Alibaba and Tencent, which selected Hong Kong as the first test-grounds outside the Chinese mainland for their aggressive international rollout, both opened data centers in the city a couple of years ago.
The State-owned telecommunications company China Unicom also joined the fray to set up its first and largest data center outside of the Chinese mainland in 2016.
In response to what's going on in the local data center market today, Chan said, Hong Kong's leaders should move more proactively to make the city a digital payment hub. Taking full advantage of the situation will also require looking at the concept of digital payment from a broader, cross-border perspective, opening the door for more collaboration with its mainland counterparts such as neighboring Shenzhen.
"If there is any obstacle getting in the way of Hong Kong's jumping on the cross-border cooperation bandwagon, it should be the different regulatory mechanisms and mentality separating Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland," said Frazer Lam, with the fintech specialist group at the Hong Kong Computer Society.