HONG KONG: The economic obituary for this island city-state has been written several times.
In the 1950s, as the sun set on the British empire and the communist era dawned, Hong Kong’s role as the gateway to China trade looked in serious jeopardy.
Then, as China opened to foreign investment in the 80s, much of Hong Kong’s industrial base rushed over the border.
In the 1990s, anticipating a bitter end of British rule, thousands of the colony’s richest residents packed off to such places as Canada and Australia. By the time they realised it was safe to return a decade later, the Asian financial crisis and SARS had wiped out 70% of Hong Kong’s real estate value.
More recently, with the emergence of Shanghai as an economic boomtown, much of it financed with Hong Kong money, the betting has been that it was only a matter of time before Hong Kong would be overtaken as a corporate and financial centre.
It has gotten to the point now that Hong Kong relies on the communist mainland for much of its new capital, and the majority of its tourist trade, while Mandarin is replacing English as Hong Kong’s second language after Cantonese. And Communist Party officials seem to take some satisfaction in putting their richer and once-haughty Hong Kong cousins in their place.
Nowhere is this rivalry more apparent than at a spectacular new airport that just opened in nearby Guangzhou.
When completed over the next few years, Guangzhou International will be able to handle 80 million passengers a year, along with 3 million tonnes of cargo, which would make it bigger than any of today’s airports, including a big new one here.
“We still have the edge, but that window is closing very quickly,'' Andrew Liao, a prominent lawyer and member of Hong Kong’s executive council, told a group of American journalists at a luncheon hosted by the Better Hong Kong Foundation, which sponsored our visit.
But don’t be too quick to count out the wily and practical Hong Kongers.
For one, mainland China remains a remarkably Balkanized economy and market that is unlikely to recognise Shanghai, or any other city, as its financial capital any time soon.
More significantly, Hong Kong’s big head start as a financial centre, along with its strong legal and regulatory system, should give it a strong advantage over any city on the mainland, where stock trading is thin, no bond market exists and the rule of law remains an ambiguous concept.
And even if Shanghai emerges as the place where Chinese companies raise capital from Chinese savers, it will have an uphill battle displacing Hong Kong as the gateway for international finance.
Hong Kong also stands a good chance of emerging as the leading source of high-end professional services and product design.
China right now can only produce a tiny fraction of the lawyers, accountants and MBAs it needs to train each year. The logical place to turn to is Hong Kong, which has not only a sizeable cadre of world-class managers and professionals, but also the lifestyle that can attract the faculty members from advanced Western countries to teach those skills to Chinese students.
And as long as China remains the world capital of intellectual piracy, it is unlikely that foreign firms will want to do their research and product development there.
Years ago, as Motorola was developing a network of computer-chip-making plants in China, it was careful to keep the design work for those plants in Hong Kong, where its patents could be enforced.
Now, a big new science and technology park along the China-Hong Kong border is filling up fast with the likes of National Semiconductor and Philips, along with a handful of local start-ups, all hoping to follow the same strategy.
Until now, the tycoons who dominate Hong Kong’s economy haven’t lavished the kind of money on local universities to transform them into the MITs and Stanfords of China, and secure Hong Kong’s role as China’s frontal lobe.
The question now is whether the tycoons’ MIT- and Stanford-educated children are clever enough to figure that out before the newly minted billionaires of Shanghai and Beijing. – LAT-WP
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