Hong Kong in China: 20 years of re­mark­able progress

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT - GA B R I E L D O N L E AV Y

Iwas there when China took back Hong Kong from Britain in 1997. I saw the fire­boats, dragon dances, mil­i­tary tat­toos and last gover­nor Chris Pat­ten’s tears. I had been an ex­pa­tri­ate aca­demic in Hong Kong since 1985 and was re­turn­ing from Aus­tralia to wit­ness this his­toric event.

Colo­nial Hong Kong in its last decade was re­garded as a plum post­ing for Western ex­pa­tri­ates. The in­sult­ing ep­i­thet ap­plied by Hooray Hen­rys in Eng­land to their friends who left for Hong Kong was “FILTH” — “failed in Lon­don, try Hong Kong”. This cul­tural sneer was re­flected in the ab­sence of the very top Bri­tish cor­po­ra­tions from a sig­nif­i­cant and high-pro­file pres­ence in walk­ing dis­tance of the Man­darin Ori­en­tal Ho­tel. The big hongs then were not well known in Lon­don it­self. Jar­dines, Swire, Stan­dard Char­tered and HSBC were prom­i­nent in 1990s Hong Kong but in Lon­don did not re­ally sit at the same ta­ble as Unilever, ICI, Lloyds or Bar­clays. For aca­demics a stint in Hong Kong might add sig­nif­i­cantly to their fi­nan­cial cap­i­tal but was not highly re­garded by Bri­tish uni­ver­sity em­ploy­ers for the most part. Poor old Pat­ten was seen in some quar­ters as an ex­am­ple of FILTH af­ter los­ing his par­lia­men­tary seat in Eng­land, then be­ing cat­a­pulted into the gover­nor’s man­sion. Many Bri­tish ex­pa­tri­ates found his be­lated at­tempt to in­tro­duce more democ­racy naive and dan­ger­ous, not be­cause they were against democ­racy (though some un­doubt­edly thought the fran­chise should ex­clude the lessprop­er­tied mem­bers of so­ci­ety) but rather be­cause they thought it should have been pro­gres­sively in­tro­duced much ear­lier, un­der a strong gover­nor such as the iconic Mur­ray MacLe­hose in the 1970s.

The “one coun­try, two sys­tems” pol­icy never meant that one sys­tem was full-on democ­racy, es­pe­cially as no such thing ex­isted in the colony. Rather the Hong Kong sys­tem was the one they ac­tu­ally had: Vig­or­ous mar­kets, in­ter­na­tional freeish trade, some­what rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment, tight mon­e­tary reg­u­la­tion, a clean cap­i­tal mar­ket and real es­tate as the fuel for eco­nomic mo­men­tum.

Be­fore 1997 the Freema­sons were a for­mi­da­ble force in Hong Kong, with a six-year wait­ing list for mem­ber­ship and many mem­bers drawn from the po­lice, le­gal fra­ter­nity and banks. Now there is no wait­ing list, few lodges and no in­flu­ence. Then the Uni­ver­sity of Hong Kong (HKU) and Chi­nese Uni­ver­sity of Hong Kong were the top uni­ver­si­ties lo­cally and re­garded in the West as good mid-level achiev­ers. Hardly any aca­demic em­ployed back then would be short­listed for a job at ei­ther in­sti­tu­tion now. The rise of Hong Kong uni­ver­si­ties to the global top 100, and the pres­ence of HKU and Hong Kong Uni­ver­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy in the very top ta­ble of world rank­ings, is a posthandover phe­nom­e­non in its en­tirety. It is par­al­leled by an in­creas­ing pres­ence of good and great

We are about to be able to drive from Hong Kong to Ma­cao or Zhuhai by land bridge. That in turn will fa­cil­i­tate the com­ing to­gether of Zhuhai, Shen­zhen and Hong Kong into a sin­gle re­gional in­no­va­tive ecosys­tem able to beat any com­peti­tor in the world.

schol­ars from the Chi­nese main­land in all the top Western uni­ver­si­ties now, es­pe­cially in the United States. It ap­pears freer mar­kets are good for schol­ar­ship but pop­ulist democ­racy might be bad for it. This is quite a se­ri­ous point. Brexit in the United King­dom and the trump­ing of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign in the US may not sig­nal the end of the En­light­en­ment but they do not seem to re­flect the out­come of calmly con­sid­ered, deep and long-term anal­y­sis. China’s ef­forts over re­cent years, es­pe­cially the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive, do seem like the out­come of that ad­mirable process.

The most strik­ing con­trast for me be­tween to­day’s Hong Kong and 1997’s how­ever is the land­scape. In 1997 the har­bor sky­line was dom­i­nated by HSBC, the Bond Cen­tre, the Bank of China and the Shun Tak Cen­tre. Planes were still scrap­ing the air over Kowloon as they came into land at Kai Tak. Within a year of the han­dover, Hong Kong had a world-class air­port at Chek Lap Kok which still achieves the very top rank­ing in users’ polls. Lan­tau Is­land has come alive with air­port sup­port fa­cil­i­ties, Dis­ney­land and a host of new sub­ur­ban de­vel­op­ments. Be­fore 1997 Lan­tau at­tracted devout Bud­dhists but few others, de­spite be­ing much larger than Hong Kong Is­land or Kowloon. The Kowloon sky­line now has imag­i­na­tively de­signed sky­scrapers. The MTR has di­gested the old Kowloon-Can­ton Rail­way and goes nearly ev­ery­where in Hong Kong where there are com­mu­ni­ties. We are about to be able to drive from Hong Kong to Ma­cao or Zhuhai by land bridge. That in turn will fa­cil­i­tate the com­ing to­gether of Zhuhai, Shen­zhen and Hong Kong into a sin­gle re­gional in­no­va­tive ecosys­tem able to beat any com­peti­tor in the world. The Greater Pearl City will be a last­ing mon­u­ment to the suc­cess of Hong Kong and its neigh­bor since the city re­turned to China.

The au­thor is pro­fes­sor of ac­count­ing in the New Eng­land Busi­ness School at the Uni­ver­sity of New Eng­land in Ar­mi­dale, Aus­tralia.

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