So ignorant of the big picture

SCMP February 5, 2007

Last week, President Hu Jintao embarked on an 11-day tour of African countries, hisfourth since becoming China's leader. It was the latest step in the development of China's relations with Africa and followed the summit of African leaders in Beijing late last year.
But don't expect the leaders of "Asia's world city" to take much interest in Africa, or indeed anything outside their preoccupations with bureaucratic power plays or proving loyalty to the motherland.

By coincidence, on the day Mr Hu left for Cameroon, the former South African president F.W. de Klerk was in Hong Kong. He gave a talk to the Foreign Correspondents' Club about African and global governance issues which went almost completely unreported. Nor did our city's business groups regard him as worthy of public attention. Nor even was he received by our bow-tied leader. It is not clear whether this was out of ignorance, pre-occupation with his re-election or out of irritation that Mr de Klerk was in town as part of a group of which Anson Chan Fang On-sang is a member. Could Donald Tsang Yam-kuen be so petty?

The lack of interest was an indictment of Hong Kong's general parochialism and the ignorance of international issues, business and political, which characterises its leadership. Mr de Klerk may have left the presidency of South Africa more than a decade ago. But he is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a man who shares, with his successor Nelson Mandela, the achievement of having rescued his country from what seemed certain civil war. In doing so, he had to admit that for decades he had promoted a monstrous injustice - apartheid. He is also the only leader to end his country's nuclear-power status.

Mr de Klerk, now 70, speaks with a coherence and authority that Mr Tsang so sadly lacks. And he remains a hugely influential figure in South Africa, the most important country in sub-Saharan Africa. It is also a country with which Hong Kong has much direct trade and tourism, is connected by daily flights and is a gateway to all of southern and central Africa.

It is painfully obvious that Hong Kong leaders - not just the chief executive - who have spent their whole working lives in the cocoon of the local bureaucracy are incapable of understanding the city's global and regional role and capitalising on it. It is far more important, it often seems, to be seen to be patriotic by "promoting" Hong Kong to provincial officials.

Our one advantage over the likes of Shanghai is our difference; our international connections as defined by attitudes as well as free trade, open access and a non-Chinese legal system. Freeing up cross-border transport and investment is fine, but in itself does nothing to exploit Hong Kong's unique status.

Beijing may - very naturally - want Hong Kong's differences to fade rapidly. But the duty of Hong Kong's leader is to exploit them to the full and sustain the differences which enable the city to be freer and richer. That process must focus on the international, which includes treating the likes of Mr de Klerk as at least as significant as party functionaries from Guizhou , or spending far more time in mainland provinces than developing Hong Kong's external links.

The city's lifeblood is international trade and commercial services. The present power elite comes from quite different sectors - the jobs-for-life senior bureaucrats, the property developers, who are essentially leeches on the businesses driving the external economy, and a collection of rich rentiers of whom Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen and Liberal Party leader James Tien Pei-chun are the most prominent.

Thus, it is no surprise that the recent financial services boom owes itself almost entirely to the combination of mainland stock market listings and the presence of foreign major league investment banks. Little credit can be claimed by an inward-looking broking community which has failed to create the conditions to attract foreign listings as even Singapore, let alone London, has done.

So while Mr Hu looks as far as lesser-known African countries as part of China's global engagement, Mr Tsang and his team gaze at their navels and talk in platitudes which reveal their ignorance of what makes a leading-edge world city in the early 21st century.





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