Sunday, February 11, 2007

Staying close to home

Ever since getting back from Beijing I've been in Hong Kong, or the environs like Shenzhen. Part of it has been forced on me, since I needed to get visas for my upcoming trip to Vietnam with the Spaniard (via Bangkok and Singapore - got a love how the student budget forces some unique itineraries and connections), and a GSB sponsored trip to Bangalore India to interview applicants to the Class of 09. No Passport = No travel, so HK it has been.

Not that it has been a bad thing, as I've gotten a chance to better know this amazing city(seriously everybody should put HK on their list of places to see). The most fascinating thing has been the contrasts and blends of east and west that I've been noticing on a daily basis:
  • The street markets springing up outside Louis Vuitton stores.
  • Buildings with dilapadated facades sporting beautiful lobbies.
  • Modern skyscrapers being built with bamboo scaffolding
  • HK Chinese sporting perfect English/Aussie/American/Candadian accents (Hi Josekin and Ivan!)
  • Walgreen type stores selling chinese folk remedies, etc.
  • Whole-Food type supermarket seafood sections selling live(well live before you purchase) fish swimming in tanks

Another thing I've noticed has been a subtle sense of insecurity amongst people here. Not insecurity on whether this is a great place, everybody seems to know that. More a sense of insecurity that they'll lose what they have. It takes many forms:

  • The HK tourism board and government has plastered "HK: Asia's World City" on everything they produce. I've been to other "World Cities," and none of them make such an effort to proclaim their worldliness. It's like the kid who joins the popular crowd and has to remind everybody he's cool in order to reaffirm his position.
  • By extension, the news reports I've heard, and been able to understand, talk about improving city services in order to "continue our status as a world city."
  • People aren't shy about criticizing the Mainland, seemingly to distance themselves. In an almost reflexive manner, anytime I mention visiting the Mainland the conversation turns to how provincial and sleazy it is, esp when compared to Hong Kong. Not that they're completely off-base, but there can be some exagerations. For example, everyone here loves to cite either that everything is fake or that the need to be careful what you eat in the mainland since they have "fake eggs." Nobody themself has seen such a creation, but everybody knows of somebody who did. I find it a bit hard to belive since I've never seen these myself, and I mean why would you fake an egg when you can fake Adidas jackets?
  • Anything that shows HK as anything less than miles ahead of the Mainland gets undue press. For example, the front page of the South China Morning Post had a front page article, and requisite commentary, that HK students in Australia were failing English proficiency tests at an equal rate as those in the Mainland. The tone seemed not so much to be aghast at the high faliure rate of 45ish%, but that the Mainland student failure rate was only slightly worse.

In a way, I can understand where this insecurity is coming from. HK has come so far so quickly. Recently I went to the HK History museum and saw exhibits highlighting Japanese occupation, the extremely overcrowded tenanments, unrest in the population that occurred not that long ago. In the pictures HK looked more "3rd world" than the modern metropolis we see today.

I guess the appearances were reality back then because during the fall, my grandmother's best friend, who is originally from China, heard I was coming here and got concerned enough to reach out and give me a lot of advice like: "watch out for kidnapping, because during the Japanese war(i.e. WWII) it happened a lot. Don't wear anything valuable at all, because during the Japanese war . . " She painted a picture of an extremely dangerous place, so much so that my grandmother's first question when I talked with her a couple of weeks ago was "Have you been pickpocketed yet?" A lot has changed in 60 years, but after having been to the museum I can see where her concern came from.

Having come so far so fast, I can see why HK might be worried about losing their position, especially since they are beholden to those North of the border.

One worry is that the government in Beijing starts meddling too much or worse abolishes the special status HK enjoys. Not that anybody I know sees that as too much of a risk, China would lose too much face by going against the agreement. More importantly having a vibrant HK benefits China through having an open port to the west, and meddling too much would make "one country two-systems" an even harder potential sell for Taiwan.

More worisome is the renewed competition from the Mainland. I keep hearing the word "marginalization" which highlights the HK anxiety. A lot of HK's success has been its status as entrepot into China. However as China, particularly Shanghai, booms there's concern that people will go directly to China instead of going through HK when. That's a definite worry, but HK has a lot of expertise and as many here like to say "it's all hardware and no software" up there. It still has advantages but HK can't rest on its laurels, as the mainlanders are catching on quickly.

However, competition will do HK good, and HK has overcome many challenges in the past as it will in the future. It's a dynamic place that will always find the next opportunity. As professor Young said in International Commercial Policy last spring. "The lesson from HK is that the talented will succeed no matter what."

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