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Chan Koonchung on Hong Kong (parts 8. 9 & 10)

(2010-02-14 15:45:53)

Hong Kong Viscera Parts 8, 9, 10


Close to half of the Hong Kong populace once lived in government-built and subsidized houses. Publicly funded medical premises not only had the best facilities and expertise but were also open to the public, with nominal charges. Elementary and secondary education was compulsory and free. Public money was used to support symphony, theatre , ballet troupes, film, arts festivals, and many tertiary educational institutions. It was a far cry from laissez-faire and the Lockean limited government agenda of the free-market fundamentalists.

Murray MacLehose, governor from 1971 to 1982, initiated or completed most of the reformist projects that made acceptable governance possible, including designating Chinese as an official language alongside English, and the all-important establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1974, without which the claim of rule of law would be a sham. MacLehose was not without opposition from the local civil society. Take the case of seven-day annual paid leave for employees for example: he was fiercely contested by both local business interests and the pro-Beijing “leftists”, but he pushed the legislation through nonetheless. As a matter of fact, most legislations on labor and social welfare were opposed by local business groups, to the point that in a published paper by the Fabian Society calling for reforms in Hong Kong in 1976, it began sarcastically by saying: ‘Of course, there would be an outcry. No-one in the world over-reacts to such matters as does the Hong Kong businessmen’.

From the year 1970 when a majority of laborers worked seven days a week without any paid leave to the passing of more than 100 welfare and social protection legislations in the subsequent decade, the MacLehose government showed great autonomy against the lobby of entrenched interest groups and managed to usher in what could be called the infra-structure of tolerable social justice and acceptable governance. By the early 1980s, Hong Kong was a transformed colony, a showcase of late coloniality:

Economically, it developed from a manufacturing town to a finance-and-service world city;

Socially, it evolved from an enclave of refugees, floating passers-by and migrants into a society of permanent settlers with a shared identity;

Culturally, it changed from a cultural backwater dominated by imported

and non-vernacular products to a regional centre with impressive cultural outputs for both internal consumption and exports.

It was this ‘new’ Hong Kong that MacLehose and Margaret Thatcher took to Beijing in 1982. The state of the colony so impressed China’s patriarch Deng Xiaoping he averred that its capitalist system should remain unchanged for 50 years after 1997.


The irony was that as Hongkongers fervently tried to protect the status quo in the 1980s, they took a neo-liberal turn in summing up its success formula. Not only were the contributions of local activists and progressives not acknowledged, even MacLehose‘s reformist legacy of strong governance was sidelined, as if the colonial government had taken a backseat while Hong Kong transformed itself miraculously into a well-managed world city. Instead, most of the credit went to the long-standing rule of law that guaranteed prosperity and stability, and a free-enterprising market economy where ‘businessman knows best’. Milton Friedman’s oft-quoted praise of Hong Kong as a free economy par excellence was taken as proof of its merits. Hong Kong did not have to learn from other Asian Tigers; it was exceptional.

Hong Kong was soon offered another golden opportunity: the opening-up of China. The de-industrialization experience in British and North American cities was often painful, but for Hong Kong it was mostly pleasant, at least in the initial decade. Labor-intensive manufacturing industries moved over to the neighboring Pearl River Delta area in Guangdong, where cheap labor guaranteed the Hong Kong-owned enterprises’ profitability without re-investment and technological innovation. Hong Kong workers were sent to the Guangdong factories as foremen and managers. The industrial lands in the colony were  re-zoned and thrown into the property game. Local capital were directed to invest in real estate and the stock market, where the main board index was dominated by seven listed real estate companies and local banks, whose major business was housing mortgage. With proceeds from land sales often amounting to more than 20% of public revenue, the government felt complacent with leaving the economy alone. By mid-1990s GDP per capita was higher than the UK and second only to Japan in Asia. The colony’s future competitiveness was not seriously discussed by the insouciant local elites. Industrial policy remained a non-starter. As a textbook case of free economy, Hong Kong could not go wrong as long as the world economy, meaning the American economy, was going strong.

 The Asian financial crisis was a wake-up call. Hong Kong went down after Thailand imploded, while American economy remained largely unscathed. Korea under a proactive government soon recovered from the crisis and became stronger than before, but Hong Kong performed poorly for seven consecutive years. Meanwhile, China enjoyed stellar growth, thus debunking the newly conceived platitude that if China grows, Hong Kong will grow. Obviously there could be a long time lag. Hubris was replaced by self-doubt. Worries about Guangdong and Shanghai overtaking Hong Kong on logistics, producer services and finance instilled a sense of urgency and even a gloomy mood in the locals. How could all this have happened to Hong Kong?

To make things worse, household median income dropped substantially below that of 1996. Unlike before 1997 when real income had increased for all sectors of society, Hong Kong became a generic global city where the rich gets richer and the poor gets poorer. The Gini co-efficiency of over 0.52 topped all developed countries and was also the highest in Hong Kong’s history. Other affluent Asia countries such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan and even Singapore, all facing the same pressure from globalization, have witnessed far less severe polarization of wealth.

Hong Kong could no longer blame all its woes on the natural cycles of world economy and other external factors. Some of the problems must have been internal. Obviously, neo-liberal dogmas had their limitations.

If the 1970s was the progressive decade, the 1980s until 1997 was the gilded age, and the ten years after 1997 could be called the decade of uncertainty. Hardly recovered from the hangover of the pre-1997 apogee, the SAR government has spent these 10 years trying to figure out the causes of the post-1997 vagaries and could not find a consensus among its ruling elites, let alone formulating a coherent economic policy. All palliatives have been proved inadequate. The neighboring areas are catching up fast while Hong Kong procrastinates. The ruling elites have been enthralled by neo-liberal promises and other faulty assumptions for too long that they could not see Hong Kong through its own eyes. The fact that the head of the SAR government is not popularly elected certainly does not help the situation.


 Now we are back to the colonized mind: in spite of having a strong identity and a vibrant local culture, Hong Kong has not developed its own theoretical language of self-articulation and that has impeded its self-understanding. Some commentators went so far as to say that Hong Kong is a city of disappearance or amnesia, and Hong Kong’s story is always presented through other people’s stories.

 Without falling into the trap of ontologizing the authentic, one could say that mini-narratives and non-reductionist forms of hybridized visceral writings were often more interesting and reliable guides to Hong Kong than theoretical writings, including discourses informed by usually helpful postcolonial theories from elsewhere.

 In the past two decades, local intellectuals armed with critical and postcolonial theories have been increasingly effective in deconstructing or demystifying many received ideas, but their arguments were often shrouded in borrowed and opaque languages, limiting their appeal to the general public.

The decolonization of the Hong Kong mentality has been slow. This leads one to suspect that many Hong Kongers may find a modicum of the colonized mind innocuous or even a boon to their comfort level.

Hong Kong’s postcolonial conundrum partly seems to be this:

A decolonized mind entails, simultaneously, dampening Hong Kong’s enthusiasm to think in terms of received ideas that have either been flattering or humiliating; broadening its cosmopolitan outlook to be more inclusive and trans-cultural; deconstructing or critically canvassing all pre-packaged discourses that have been mobilized to describe Hong Kong from the outside; casting a wider net for new and alternative thinking to feed its changing needs, and from its mongrel viscera constructing its own problematics and language of alterity. That could be messy. It challenges the neat neo-liberal self-understanding that has purported to explain its past successes, and it piques the jealously guarded nationalist discourse of an overwhelming sovereign power. It is a contestation Hong Kongers may feel hesitant to commit.


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