THE MYTH OF HONG KONG (issue nș 04)

by Serge Berthier

The story of Hong Kong has always been a tale of mythical proportion with little relevance to the reality. A tale has a redeeming quality. Hong Kong could not stay in the history books as the bounty snatched from China in a bloody and shameful tussle: the opium war.

Why was Hong Kong able to move so rapidly into a developed world while other countries seem to labor generation after generation without progress? Because of the strong connection between economic freedom and economic prosperity, says the Heritage Foundation.

What free is supposed to mean is that the government doesn't impede economic growth and wealth creation. Listening to the people of Hong Kong, Asian Affairs discovered that the government does impede the property market and has done so since day one. The property market, which now is a source of concern, has never been a free market. Yet it is the main source of wealth in Hong Kong. So can we say that Hong Kong is the freest economy of the world? Certainly not. It is one of the most controlled economies of the world.

Admittedly, Hong Kong is part of the super-rich. It is even richer, according to the GDP benchmark, than its former master, the United Kingdom. But averages and trends and graphs and GDP that the Civil Service of Hong Kong is very good at putting together are not always what they seem. There may be more in them than meets the eye, and there maybe a good deal less. A well-wrapped statistic can deceive. It can trick honest people into honest lies. Hong Kong statistics trick people into honest lies.

False charts in magazines and newspapers frequently sensationalize by exaggeration, rarely minimize anything. That is part of what we call the media prism. Hong Kong being glamorous got its fair share of false charts, trends and averages. Hong Kong, being a Western concept in the Far East, was ensconced in positive prejudices. Never mind the fact that Hong Kong has always been a Chinese city with a very low percentage of Westerners. And that full-day schooling still doesn't exist at primary level.

Facts are not very kind with prejudices and lies. They outlast them and they ridicule them. One of the consequences of the return of Hong Kong to the sovereignty of China has been to accelerate the time it takes.

Hong Kong is confused and worried. Among the lies, it discovers that its executive-led government seems not to work efficiently, not because of any Chinese interference (China is rather absent from the scene) but because the Civil Service is the power within the power. Such an arrangement is not new, it suited the British very well as long as it was in Hong Kong and not in London, and it suited Hong Kong's people as long as it was perceived, being mostly locally staffed, as being the best counterweight to the colonial appointees. Today, it suits no one.

There are several reason for that. One of them, we are told, is that Hong Kong is in pain as a result of the Asian crisis. And so you need a culprit. The Civil Service is therefore the easy target. But that remark is of great significance, for it means that the Hong Kong people have always felt that the Civil Service has a great say in the economy. So much for Hong Kong being the freest economy in the world.

Another reason is that the polarization of Hong Kong society is now a fact. As Arthur Li says, to say that it is the legacy of the last governor, Chris Patten, is debatable. In any case, it seems unavoidable that a society that doesn't feel the mantle of the colonial power wants to take its fate into its hands. In fact, we feel such polarization to be a mark of success for China. The Hong Kong people don't fear a master, they are Chinese, they live in China. And so, rather than facing China, they are facing themselves.

That is where the statistics failed us. Hong Kong is far from being developed in the sense you could say that a country with a GDP of US$26,000 per capita is developed. In a way, it is miserable, maybe because the government was a miser, except for its own servants, the highest paid in the world.

Hong Kong has a myriad of problems to solve which are a legacy of the laissez-faire attitude that was the hallmark of the previous governments. But laissez-faire is not a hallmark of a free market system. It is a characteristic of indifference.

It is not therefore surprising that there is a feeling of confusion at all levels. In the process, the tale of Hong Kong is exposed as being nothing more than a charade. Remains only one hard fact: the huge reserves that the miser saved over the years. This should help the people of Hong Kong to turn the page and at least to organize full-time schooling in the future. For the time being, Hong Kong seems bemused. No wonder that the Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa declined to comment on the situation. There was no need. It is there to see.

Serge Berthier