An old saw has it that only the British would build a city on a small, mountainous, rocky, waterless island and only the Chinese would live in it.
Something of a backwater until 1949 when the miseries and violence of Mao Tse-tung and the Communists inflicted on the Mainland of China led to a boom. Virtually everyone in South China wanted to flee to the “horrors” of British colonialism, in the process giving the colony the cheap labor and outsourcing of manufacturing, first from Japan hit by American quotas, and then the rest of the world.
Ironically, today, with its manufacturing base largely gone, Hong Kong again relies on the anomalies of Communist Mainland rule for its continued prosperity. Despite two lackluster chief executives installed with Beijing blessing after reversion to China in 1997, Hong Kong remains Hong Kong – even if promises of one country, two systems has not been kept as Beijing promised.
The conversations are as raucous as ever. [My friend, Mandarin-speaking Robert Elegant, quipped that even the Cantonese couldn’t master the eight tones of their language and shout to make themselves understood.
Every third or fourth person is coughing, maybe TB, maybe that exotic streptococci that lives in South China and occasionally breaks out for world influenza epidemics, or maybe the increasing pollution floating down the Pearl River from China, often a cloud over the island. The elbows among pedestrians are as sharp as ever – although they make take backseat to the Mainland pedestrian movement where there are no holds barred.
The once magnificent scenery is dimmed by all the high buildings but their colorful lights at night make Center look like something out of Disneyland.
Many predictions over the years – I remember a fatuous American consulate-general political type who told me after the Nixon-Kissinger “opening to China” in 1972, that Hong Kong would no longer have a role in China-watching now that the Mainland was “open”.
Alas! the China-watching may be limited with a media which even by the poor standards of old Hong Kong has degenerated into a regurgitation of Communist propaganda making even Xinhua, the official news agency and spying operation of the Communists, look good. More important, Hong Kong has become more important as an entrepot for China since it opened its doors to foreign investment and technology. And, of course, like everywhere else the print media is dying. Hong Kong’s universities have grown like Topsy; the Chinese University of Hong Kong says it is turning itself into a research center.
But all this remains to be seen with a curtain of increasing Communist suppression stifling what was a developing freedom political movement under the British. But the incredible displays of activity – including the old raffish, crooked taxi drivers driving in a murderous fashion – is as animated as ever. Its traffic makes New York or Marseilles look subdued. There is even old-fashioned dim sun – those marvelous little morsels of steamed pastry, meat, fish and pastry at my old stand on Stanley Street for the local’s morning negotiation site or an old unrequited Cantonese cuisine lover like me [Bob Elegant again: “The Cantonese use mostly those parts of the cow and pig that everyone else throws away.”]
But what sustains all this – besides that incredible Chinese entrepreneurial gene – is that the Mainland needs Hong Kong today as it always has – not so much its port as a transit point for its exports which is declining – but for myriad other reasons.
Hong Kong’s dollar, tied to the U.S. currency which often causes heartburn here even though it makes it a part of the worldwide currency reserve system, provides Beijing with a crutch for its overvalued and nonconvertible currency.
That means that Hong Kong by taking in China’s dirty currency laundry – the colony’s huge official holdings of ren min bao [yuan] and limits on daily conversions are probably only the tip the iceberg – makes itself the undisputed Asian regional financial leader. Try as it may, rival Singapore, and aspiring Shanghai, and yen-locked Tokyo would like that title.
That forest of skyscrapers – much of it residential – also represents a Mainland foible: the rush of hundreds of thousands of China’s nouveau rich to get their money out of the reach of rapacious competitors in a lawless society, or even those who believe a reckoning day is coming for the Mainland’s jerry-built system. The sea of shops selling name brands of French and other European luxury goods also reflect a Mainland phenomenon: Hong Kong has more or less prevented the kind of knock-offs and out-and-out counterfeits that swamp Mainland markets. And, as Beijing authorities have trumpeted in their latest anti-corruption campaign, these are the coin of doing business with Chinese officials – especially during this current New Year’s festival period.
Acknowledged in their latest anti-corruption campaign, these are the coin of the boundless bribery that afflicts the Mainland system. Whether that remarkable level, given the odds, of anti-corruption maintained here by the British particularly in their last years, holds, I wouldn’t know. But my guess is there has been considerable erosion.
Can it continue? That depends so much in the world today, and not just in East Asia, on how fragile the Mainland regime really is. Despite Milton Friedman’s insistence Hong Kong was the model for market economics, it never was.
Then Banish bureaucrats had two major levers of economic power which they used so skillfully in the post-World War II period, One, of course, was a tight immigration policy in which they let in just enough refugees from China to keep a steady supply of cheap labor and maintain some measure of integration. The other was the use of sale of government land in a tiny, space-strapped environment to fund rapid expansion of magnificent infantries.
There are signs of growing strain on both these fundamentals. Although the Hong Kong Special Administrative Area government supposedly lets in only 150 permanent Chinese residents a day, a government spokesman recently admitted the authorities are not sure how many people are here, both Chinese and other Asians [tens of thousands of Filipina maids, for example] who have come to participate in the hard-won prosperity.
Hundreds of thousands of Mainlanders hold multiple entry visas and are to all intents and purposes residents. So whether the generally accepted seven million or 10 are the actual figure is moot.
You can almost walk to Kowloon on the Mainland now what with the continual filling in of the once magnificent bay to get more land for the skyscrapers. My old Mandarin Hotel, still housing the ghost of the older Connaught, was once on the waterfront. It was a good hoofing to get to the Star Ferry when I took it the other day.
Hong Kongers don’t hold their breath waiting for events on the Mainland. They are too busy making a living and struggling for that two-room apartment on the 20th flood of sometimes dreary skyscrapers.
But the good life in Hong Kong is still preferable to the more precarious existence, even in the Chinese coastal cities where life is even more precious.
But their future may be decided with what happens in the secret infighting scheduled to produce a new succession of leadership next month in Beijing. That’s been Hong Kong’s fate in the past and continues into the unknown future.