Category Archives: China ’09

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

Staying out of trouble (just)

It sometimes feels like trouble is trying to catch me up. First there was the terrorist attack in Bombay, then the Maoist bombs in west Bengal, the resignations in Nepal while I was in the Everest Region, and now Xinjiang‘s upheavals.

The emergence of trouble in Xinjiang was probably the most predictable in retrospect, possibly the least predictable going forward, and is certainly the saddest, particularly with the violence spreading to Kashgar, less than 100 kilometres from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

You can read my previous post on my wanderings in Kashgar here. Mind the gap(s).

I leave Shanghai for Hong Kong today.

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The heights of Shanghai – and on the box in Beijing

Shanghai shall overcome?

“I got you… under my skin…”

As the train eased into Shanghai’s central station, the strains of Frank Sinatra’s famous song wafted through the carriage. There’s always music in the mornings on Chinese trains – normally it’s something rousingly patriotic to remind passsengers of the bright and glorious future that awaits China… but entering Shanghai is different.

Here, it’s Sinatra.

It fits. Shanghai has all the brash swagger and unerring confidence of “Ol’ Blue eyes” at his peak. I was last here in 2007, but even since then the city has changed – more skyscrapers, more high-end shops, more street-wise kids parading down the pedestrianised main drag.

It’s telling that the smartest museum here is dedicated to the future, not the past. The “Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall” is an amazing reflection of the high-flown ambitions of this very 21st century city. If you believe the hype, within a few years Shanghai is going to be the world’s leading eco-city, the world’s leading digital city, the leading global airport transport hub, an international shipping centre, and a tourist attraction to end all tourist attractions. With the 2010 Shanghai Expo around the corner, the pace of change is if anything increasing.

But all may not be quite what it seems… there are rumours that the Expo is being hit hard by the global credit crunch. Apparently the US has cut it’s investment in the Expo drastically, and the fantastic Access Asia newsletter last week reported some pretty interesting numbers – inbound tourism, fell 11% in January to April 2009 down from the same period last year; hotel occupancy rates were only 45.9% in the same period, down around 10%.

Right now, the buzz is still here though. It’s going to be fascinating to see what happens at and beyond the Expo next year.

Beijing takes on the world

If Shanghai is becoming China’s New York, Beijing is sometimes called its Washington DC – a city centred on a powerful polity and burgeoning bureaucracy.

But my experience here was of the creative end of the city – five days in China’s kicking capital passed in a blur. Beijing has the feel of a city that‘s just beginning to realise it’s own global importance.

I arrived armed with an introduction to the owner of the highly successful Plastered T-shirts brand, Dominic Johnson-Hill. A Beijinger of 17 years standing, he is both a resident and a shop-owner on the achingly cool Nanluogo Xiang – a small hutong catering to the growing urban-hip crowd here.

Dominic tipped me off first to the Turner show that is visiting here from Tate Britain. It has become one of the most popular art exhibitions ever held here. After 8 months, the dose of western European culture was hugely welcome.

Next stop was a gig by Carsick Cars, the brightyoungthings of the underground Beijing rock scene. Music’s one of the things that’s pretty hard for authorities to pin down, and Carsick Cars play with words and images in a way that has definitely captured the imagination of Beijingers. Their most famous song “Zhongnanhai” is the name of a cigarette brand – and also the name for the seat of Chinese government. With lyrics like “I love my Zhongnanhai”, the song has become an iconic (and ironic) anthem. This was the launch of their second album “You can Listen You can Talk”. The energy and sense of release at the gig was palpable.

A couple of days later, an enigmatic email from Dominic pinged into my inbox:

“tomorrow i am going to the great wall to be in a chinese tv show – i am in fact in need of a western face to be on the tv show wearing one of my t shirts, there will be a studio audience of 600 people, if you fancy coming along i’ll throw in a free t shirt and cover your expenses…”

It was what’s commonly called a no-brainer.

The show turned out to be the launch of a major new government push behind entrepreneurial activity in China, complete with the top business people in China on a panel, young entrepreneurs from around the country presenting their stories, the top Chinese pop stars providing interludes (including Zhang Liangying in the picture), and a special appearance from Jackie Chan, the darling of the masses here.

It was an amazing event. The five businessmen were all billionaires and included Jack Ma, founder and CEO of, Li Yanhong, founder and CEO of Baidu (the Chinese Google), and the billionaire brothers Liu Yonghao and Liu Yongxing, whose Hope Group has turned chicken feed distribution into billions of Yuan.

Dominic was there for an interview as “the foreign entrepreneur-done-good“, which he conducted effortlessly in Mandarin. I was there to carefully position myself beside him to get maximum exposure for the excellent t-shirt I was sporting.

The whole thing was a fascinating insight into the construction of narrative here – stories of heroes from the countryside were myriad, a sign that the government recognises all too clearly that it has to deal with the thorny issue of a growing urban/rural divide. The idea of unleashing entrepreneurialism in the countryside is a compelling one, at least on paper. And a consequence of one-party government is that when the government says something’s going to happen, it usually does. So watch this space.

I loved Beijing. Other highlights included a day in the 798 Art district, dinner with friends I met in Xinjiang, and a couple of late nights out to sample the vibrant nightlife. It may not be typical China, but it is developing into one of the great cities.

I have a few more days in Shanghai and then move to Hong Kong.

ENDNOTE: Follow-up to the previous post (“Brnads” story)… Plastered T-shirts, mentioned above, is successful enough to attract copies already – Dominic’s attitude is, however, refreshingly pragmatic – “The fakes I couldn’t give a f*** about really – it’s quite flattering. It’s the bastards who try and nick my brand that piss me off…”]

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