International Herald Tribune
Meanwhile: China changes, not Hong Kong
Monday, February 12, 2007

HONG KONG: What's changed in Hong Kong since Britain handed the territory over to Beijing 10 years ago? I have tried avoiding this question, put by almost every visitor since July 1997. But with the 10th anniversary approaching, maybe it's time for some random thoughts from a resident who has lived here since 1973.

First a word of caution. It is always assumed that Hong Kong must have changed enormously since Beijing took charge. To me, though, the city has mostly just gotten bigger. Its money-making, high-rise, noisy, and sometimes uncouth nature has not changed.

By contrast, most urban centers in this part of the world have changed beyond recognition. China is the extreme case; its Mao-era cities were an unnatural, political aberration, like Pyongyang is today. But for organic urban development it would be hard to beat Kuala Lumpur. Bangkok is not far behind and Jakarta, too, has been transformed. Seoul and Taipei have acquired state-of-the-art subway systems. Only Manila has visibly deteriorated.

By comparison, Hong Kong has hardly changed at all, although pollution here has grown dramatically worse as the city chokes on the smoke from Guangdong's factories and the fumes from its incredibly profitable coal-burning power plants. There is nothing new about these monopolies, nor is there much new about Hong Kong's power structure. The same families — with vast wealth derived from property or banking — rule the roost even more surely than they did a decade ago, their claws now deeply implanted in the local bureaucracy and their tentacles stroking the Chinese Communist Party's favored sons.

Looking back on life here since 1997, some themes recur. Back then I remarked on the record sale of a plot of residential land in Repulse Bay across the road from my apartment. Only very recently was that value surpassed. To add a twist to the story, that building, on which approximately $1.2 billion has now been spent, remains unoccupied. Is that a sign of untold wealth? Or untold stupidity? Who knows? Hong Kong has always had people richer than they seem — and not as rich as they like to appear.

Property prices remain the talk of the town as 2007 sees the possible completion of a cycle. Prices, which peaked around the time of the handover and then fell 50 percent or so to a nadir around 2001, are now mostly back or above the previous peaks. But there is far less sense of euphoria.

The People's Liberation Army is almost invisible in its barracks, but Beijing's shadow lies across the government. Frustrated by the narrow political power base and official focus on closer relations with the mainland, the sense of Hong Kong identity has been growing. It is no longer a city of refugees from the mainland, but retains an acute sense of its difference. More people can speak Mandarin, but Cantonese is as entrenched as ever and traditional Chinese characters have not been replaced by the Communists' simplified writing.

Hong Kong, however, is conscious that it has slipped in the league of Chinese cities. And it may be noting that its official obsession with mainland relations is slowly but remorselessly reducing its international character. The city's government touts Hong Kong as "Asia's world city." But the world used to assume that it was already that without needing to be told.

More threatening to Hong Kong's international image are the eroding standards of English, inward-looking institutions, rising ethnic chauvinism and a particular prejudice against brown Asians, including the locally born. Leadership by professional bureaucrats with no international exposure does not help, and the pull of the mainland has weakened links with Southeast Asia and Japan.

But Hong Kong still remains a very open, free-wheeling place, with people from such unlikely spots as Cameroon and Brazil.

One great expatriate event still thrives — the international Rugby Sevens tournament. In 1997 many saw it as a last hurrah for its largely Western crowds. Yet it is still the only sporting event regularly to fill the Hong Kong stadium. The British military bands are long gone, but, next month, the bands of the Hong Kong police, complete with bagpipes, will still be playing the same music to another sell-out crowd.

And just down the road the statue of Queen Victoria stands unmolested in the park that bears her name.