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Saturday, May 25, 2024

So Hong Kong is facing big challenges. What’s new?

So Hong Kong is facing big challenges. What’s new?

Since the 1980s alone, the city has grappled with stock and property market crashes, financial crises, protests and pandemics. The city is uniquely defined by its challenging history, where people have always managed to pick themselves up and carve out a better future.
When I first saw the button that Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu was sporting at the launch of Hong Kong’s tourism campaign, it struck me how passive and downright bland the slogan was. “Hello Hong Kong” does little to conjure up the spirit of this place and its people. I hope, for the sake of the battered tourism sector, that the free air tickets prove more motivational than the slogan.

My first impression of Hong Kong was that it was anything but bland. Just arriving in the city in the early 1990s could make you break out in a cold sweat. The flight approach at the old airport required the pilot to make a last-minute turn at about 600 feet as “Checkerboard Hill” loomed ahead.

For me, it was a memorable introduction: an unexpected thrill, accompanied by just a whiff of danger.

In the decades since I first arrived, the real Hong Kong has continued to reveal itself. I know it now as a place animated by its challenges. It rises time and again to meet them. If the past is any predictor of Hong Kong’s future, today’s problems, daunting though they seem, will be overcome.

And there is much to overcome. Few would disagree that recent years have been tough for Hong Kong.

The social unrest that culminated in the 2019 riots was followed by a wide-reaching national security law, ongoing prosecutions and sweeping electoral changes. The long-term impact of these events is still hard to predict.

Then Covid-19 descended on the city and drove years of physical separation from the world, and eventually a deadly wave of infections.

Hong Kong’s historic strength, that of an economic entrepôt between the mainland and the world, was badly dented by all these challenges. The economy is still being buffeted by weakness and uncertainty in the mainland economy. Geopolitical tensions have added to the city’s woes.

That is a lot to deal with, and rose-tinted nostalgia for a kinder and gentler past is tempting. But the “good old days” never really were. Major challenges have always characterised Hong Kong’s existence, just as they do today.

For illustration, beginning arbitrarily in the 1980s, the list of challenges Hong Kong has faced is a long one.

There was a currency crisis in 1983, then years of hand-wringing around the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that definitively sealed Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty. There was a stock market crash in 1987 and an economic setback in 1989 as events in mainland China affected Hong Kong. Significant emigration from the city in the 1990s was driven by worries over the 1997 handover.

Coinciding with the handover in 1997 was the Asian financial crisis, an attack on Hong Kong’s currency, and a local real estate crash. Then there was severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003. In 2008, the city was hit by the global financial crisis. And in 2014, the future of Hong Kong drew international headlines once again with the Occupy Central protests. This event helped to precipitate the major disruptions of 2019, which still resonate today.

In the face of such constant upheaval, what drives Hong Kong and its people on? Over the decades, I’ve observed that Hong Kong is driven, at least in part, by a self-conscious insecurity about being overtaken or displaced by other economic centres, most notably Singapore and Shanghai.

Despite its considerable strengths, Hong Kong still sees itself as an underdog, even when the facts suggest otherwise. As a city of only 7.3 million people, Hong Kong does pretty well for itself in terms of global attention and impact. Despite this, the people of Hong Kong continue to try harder. They are neither smug nor complacent about their place in the world.

The constant comparisons with Singapore are illustrative. We are sometimes left with the impression that Singapore will soon overtake Hong Kong as a financial centre. Yet by most measures, Hong Kong is still way ahead. For example, Hong Kong’s stock market capitalisation is more than seven times that of Singapore’s.

Competitive paranoia certainly helps to focus minds in Hong Kong. Perhaps more importantly though, the city turns challenges into success through the talent and attitudes of its people and the new people it attracts. With virtues such as an open economy and low taxation, Hong Kong has always attracted people who have confidence in themselves and risk takers who seek a challenge.

That trend of attracting talent continues. Over half of the almost 11,000 applicants in the first two months of the Top Talent Pass Scheme being promoted are young graduates of the world’s top 100 universities. These people, like the talented generations that preceded them, are not being repelled by Hong Kong’s challenges. Rather, they are coming here for the opportunities that the challenges and dynamism of Hong Kong will bring.

In the years since I first had the thrill of landing at Kai Tak and saying my own hello to Hong Kong, I have come to understand that the city has been uniquely defined by its challenging history. The uncertainties of Hong Kong can sometimes be frightening, and positive outcomes are far from guaranteed, but time and again, Hong Kong’s people have picked themselves up and carved out a better future, for themselves and the city. I see no reason to expect that will change.
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