I was pulling the longest shift of my more than two-decade career in TV journalism on June 30, 1997. After a century and half of British rule, the Kingdom was handing Hong Kong back to motherland China. It was a stormy night of heavy rain – the symbolism not lost – as the sun set on the British Empire, and the black clouds rolled in, the future of Hong Kong uncertain at best. The British were now truly on the outside, as rain pelted down on Prince Charles and Governor Chris Patten, who oversaw the British departure ceremony at the Tamar military site. The Chinese contingent, in contrast, was high and dry at their reception, inside the brand new Convention Center. The past decade and a half since Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaopeng signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 were nervous ones for the city. Who knew what fate awaited Hong Kong in the future?
Now that another decade and a half has elapsed since the wet handover night, let’s consider some of China’s contributions to this city. It’s unleashed mega tourist money here. In 1997, only 2.4 million Chinese visited each year. Today that figure’s ballooned to 28 million. Since many visa restrictions were loosened in 2003, it’s estimated that $45 billion of tourism spending has been added to the Hong Kong economy.
The downside is a growing sense that the city is catering more to mainlanders, and that locals are becoming an afterthought. In recent times, disturbing online campaigns against mainlanders and the increasing use of the Mandarin language, or so-called ‘Putonghua,’ have taken root. “When shopping in Hong Kong, it’s almost reaching the point of saturation,” said Eddie Tam, CIO at Hong Kong-based Central Assets Investment. “Every other shop is gold and jewelry,” he added, alluding to the rapidly changing retail mix that caters to visitors rather than the day to day needs of locals.
Aside from the tourist presence, a combination of perceived meddling in local politics and the recent spate of news reports about China cracking down on dissidents, has led to heightened levels of doubt about China. Latest surveys show that 37 percent of Hong Kongers mistrust the mainland government, second only to the 44 percent at the time of the handover.
While the China factor looms large, great polarization in the economy is as great a worry. The latest research on the gap between the rich and poor, as measured by the so-called Gini Coefficient, ranks Hong Kong among the highest in Asia, with 1 in 10 people here living in poverty. Much of this is steeped in history, but Hong Kong may have squandered the opportunity a generation ago, to remedy this. “We did have a very capitalist society during the 70s, 80s and 90s,” said Richard Harris, of Port Shelter Investment Management. “Now you have a large proportion of the population who served us while we were making money….the maids, the cleaners, people at the bottom end of the scale, with very poor pensions. Hong Kong needs to think of these people in their 70s and 90s caught in the poverty trap, and how we can support these people who helped us build Hong Kong to be the place it is today.”
The new Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, has his hands full, and I don’t mean just with the late-breaking scandal over alleged illegal additions to his own home. He’ll have to get his head around the perennial issue of a Hong Kong with two distinctly separate housing markets: a private market where prices and rents border on or exceed the ridiculous, and a public market which makes up around half the housing supply here and which is heavily subsidized by taxpayers (who make up only about 40 percent of the working population at that). And pollution continues to fog the skies. Last year’s levels were the worst on record.
Hong Kong clearly has its own set of problems. I regularly stew in the endless snaking clogged traffic that’s never been effectively dealt with. But when I finally park, I can revel in the fact that a $12 massage is just a block away, and there’s always a local café where I can fill up for just a few dollars. Lots of things change in 15 years, a lot of things don’t.