Hong Kong phooey!

It’s not hard to see why the British wanted Hong Kong – beautiful natural setting, a great maritime entry point for China, and an opportunity for callow youth to escape the prying eyes of prudish perusal from the motherland. This is my third time here, and the buzz is inescapable. It’s pretty hard not to have a good time, and my various hosts here have done a great job of supplying me with memories that couldn’t possibly make it onto this blog.

But wait – amid all the fun and frolics, some are whispering of the city’s potential economic demise. Can this be true?

On the down escalator?

Three facts stand out from discussions here:

  1. A number of businesses are moving their Asian operations to either Shanghai or Singapore
  2. The government in Hong Kong is developing a worrying reputation these days as a potential barrier to enterprise
  3. Shanghai’s rise as a bright centre of a new (very different) capitalist world threatens Hong Kong on all kinds of levels.

From a shipping perspective, the rapid rise of Chinese ports is removing the raison-d’etre of Hong Kong’s maritime status. One of the city’s attractions was always it’s position as a reliable and trust-worthy entry-point to a difficult China. Nowadays Shenzhen’s port is bustling, Singapore is seen as better located for the South-East Asian markets and Shanghai’s global shipping aims are stripping Hong Kong of access to the Pacific trade. Even ship-broking firms that had traditionally fed off a reputational link to the UK’s Baltic Exchange are moving out – to Singapore. Hard times.

To compound the potential problem of a minor exodus, the city is also suffering from a bureaucratic government set-up (attributed to imperial days rather than result of Chinese rule) that Hong Kongers will tell you hinders rather than promotes free enterprise. Stories of delays to investment plans by Disney are bemoaned as evidence of a city’s polity that (direct quote) “worries too much about what the people think.” (Despite the delays, Disney’s investment plans have now been accepted.)

In Shanghai, one businessman with connections to the government told me that “China’s one party system makes us the most capitalist society in the world now.” Ominously, he might just be right – the ability to get things done quickly, open doors to investment at will, and encourage massive capital flows through huge infrastructure projects have more than a whiff of the way Europe and the US worked in their quasi-democratic days of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It’s a strange and politically challenging world when China’s economic rise threatens to question the long-assumed link between open democracy (and hence political freedom) and free market capitalism.*

But tread softly, very softly…

The view from the (politically free-ish) Peak

As I walked round the beautiful peak here in unseasonably good weather, I reflected on some of the other very welcome changes that come from entering Hong Kong from China.

It’s the first time in 7 weeks, for instance, that I have been able to post directly to this blog. China’s ban on Google’s Blogger (and occasional disruption to other Google services thanks to the bizarre porn dispute) meant that I have had to email posts to London and get them posted from there since entering Tibet and China.

It’s also more than a little refreshing to have an infinite variety of news sources rather than the constant barrage of CCTV (Chinese national TV) and Chinese English language newspapers which put such a very particular “slant” on world news. While I was thankfully able to access BBC News online in China, their service in Chinese remains blocked on the mainland (though accessible here).

And lastly, in Hong Kong there’s much less of the hushed tones that come with any political discussions in China. Early on in my China trip, I discussed with one “dissenter” the concept that freedom is more than the ability to lie – it is also the ability to tell others that you think they are lying. The latter is certainly a freedom that still does not exist properly today in China.

The people who live and work in Hong Kong have a vibrancy, flexibility and adaptability that make it pretty hard to conceive of this city not surviving. Watching how it survives (under changed circumstances) could be interesting.

I will be here for a few more days before heading North, South, East or West.

* You are, of course, free to tell me if you think this is all Hong Kong phooey.

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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, China '09

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