On returning to Hong Kong
On my first visit to Finland my colleague from the Helsinki office, in a conversation about life, said that in Finland only politicians and the mafia drive Mercedes cars.
I first went to Hong Kong in 1984 and I was collected at the airport by a driver from the hotel where I was staying. I’d never before been inside a Rolls Royce, the air conditioning and the cold towel, it must be said, were a welcome relief. 1984, coincidentally, was when Governor and the PRC agreed the return of sovereignty back to China in 1997.
What I remember most from that first visit was the industry of the people, I remember standing outside the hotel on the first morning and finding myself in a swarm of people going about their business. And it wasn’t long before I was being offered “genuine” designer goods, I remember they were silk scarves with French designer labels. Hong Kong, at that time, had a reputation for counterfeit goods, indeed the colleague that I had travelled from the UK with, was due to receive his latest “Rolex Oyster” from the Managing Director of our sub-contract manufacturing facility, to add to his collection. This despite the very public crushing of thousands of fake Rolex watches under a steamroller orchestrated by the Hong Kong authorities.
What became very apparent on this latest visit to Hong Kong is first how the industry that I remembered is still a vital part of life here but also that how that industry has developed into a corporate manifestation. The scale of infrastructure development is astonishing, it puts the oligarch quarter of London to shame with the scale of its ambition; the city a citadel to the free market, but with a population that is clearly enjoying much of the fruits of its growth. And whilst all this construction and development is going on a pace, civilisation on the ground appears calm and ordered. The volume of pedestrian traffic seems to be no less than when I first came and the roads are equally full, though all with a sense of order. People stop at red lights, cross roads when the sign is green, no sounds of horns and so far not a sign of police presence at all.
When the transition from UK sovereignty was enacted late last century there were many prophecies of how bad Hong Kong would become. Concerns over whether China would honour its commitment to the signature it gave and so many thousands took the opportunity to leave Hong Kong and travel to other British commonwealth countries (except the Uk who refused to take them), Australia, Canada as well as the USA taking the bulk of the estimated 500,000 emigrants. A good number of those who left have already returned and many of the rest are continuing to do so. When power was handed over China was still regarded as an undeveloped nation of largely poor communists; it is now something else, though with a plan – which was almost certainly in place in 1984.
Those returnees entering the new airport with their burgundy UK passports will, like me, certainly look at the wealth that has been created and enjoyed by those who stayed, notwithstanding the western foreign investment, and notice the abundance of luxury cars going about their business. There is a similarity between Finland’s luxury cars and present day Hong Kong in that the import duty is similar – 100% for Finland in the mid nineties and 105% for Hong Kong today. However the presence of so many luxury marques doesn’t signify a corruption, certainly in the same way as it did for Finland.