A mix of Monaco and Dubai?
SCMP July 12
Great cities must change if they want to keep up with a changing world
around them. However remarkable their natural or geographical endowments,
they do not always do so. Rio de Janeiro has never made up for the
move of the capital to Brasilia, and the loss of much commerce to
Sao Paulo. Who talks now of Trieste, once the seaport of the great
Austro-Hungarian empire, let alone of Tangier or Aden?
Back in 1997, when it was normal to muse over Hong Kong's future,
I suggested it could well become the Monaco of the region. That
a little far-fetched at the time. But as China has changed, so have
Hong Kong's relative attractions. Now, a mix of Monaco and Dubai
seems a reasonable aspiration.
Hong Kong has two singular attributes. One, known to all except Chief
Executive Tung Chee-hwa, is its separate political status which, in
turn, underpins its position as an international financial centre.
The second is less obvious to those who live here, but always strikes
visitors: its natural attractions - harbour, mountains, beaches, sea.
Shekou and Yantian may rival our port, and Guangzhou might compete
as an aviation hub. Beijing will always be its arrogant self as the
national capital, and Shanghai is the natural commercial capital of
China. But think how ugly most of these cities are, even without the
air pollution, compared with Hong Kong.
Hong Kong thus has one God-given comparative advantage, not just compared
with other Chinese cities, but with the likes of Tokyo, Seoul or Bangkok.
Like Monaco, it was born beautiful.
Yet instead of capitalising on this, the city is slowly but surely
throwing it away by failing to recognise that times have changed. Above
all, it must offer quality of life and quality of services.
But it is stuck in a 1970s mindset. Like America and its eating habits,
the government thinks about quantity not quality. Infrastructure projects
are driven by the giantist mentality as though success was measured
in cubic metres of concrete laid, trees cut down, reclamation achieved.
This is partly a matter of bureaucratic inertia, and partly of an administration
in hock to the interests of developers and contractors.
As Jake van der Kamp recently noted in his column, capital spending
and related policies continue to be driven by long out-of-date population,
sea trade and other projections which ignore both reality and the regularly
updated projections put out by the Census and Statistics Department.
The government seems deliberately blind to what should be the foundation
of all planning and spending decisions: demography. Spending proceeds,
despite the size of the budget deficit and without any real concern
for rates of return.
Hong Kong is more than just years behind places such as Sydney or
Boston, and dozens of European cities, in investing in quality over
quantity and in environment over the rights of car ownership. Investing
in quality of life would bring benefits for the city's population,
which suffers health problems from unnecessary levels of air and water
It would keep high-value-added business in Hong Kong because high-value-added
people value clean air, clean beaches and hills to climb. It should
not be just about putting a stop to coal-fired power stations and uncontrolled
smoke emissions by trucks, ferries and tramp steamers. It should be
about investing in the things that preserve and enhance Hong Kong's
natural comparative advantage.
Mr Tung's father was an honorary consul to Monaco. Perhaps the son
should visit the principality - and Boston, and Sydney. Next time he
is in Singapore, he could learn something about city management rather
than pick up hints about a one-party state and suppressing dissent.
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