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With the recently exposed scandals of several serving and former senior officials, and continued worries over the future of Hong Kong, certain commentators are now wondering whether Hong Kong was better off under the former British colonial administration than under its current government.
Such commentators argue that, since the 1997 handover, Hong Kong has made little progress in fostering economic prosperity or furthering political reform. Its trading and shipping competitiveness vis-a-vis Shanghai, Singapore or Shenzhen may have declined; Hong Kong’s status as the world’s busiest container port has been surpassed by Singapore and Shanghai.
Therefore, one can understand some of the sentiments of those yearning for “the good old days”. With China’s historic second rise, Hong Kong faces a more uncertain future. Where once Hong Kong was unique amongst Chinese cities, there are now many who claim to offer many of the same advantages as those offered by the city. The euphoria of the 1990s, where real estate and bullish financial speculations drove the Hong Kong market to its zenith, has changed to a mood of somber unease. Where it used to be one of the mainland’s largest investors, Hong Kong has become a major recipient of capital.
In spite of that, I do not agree that Hong Kong was "better” off under the British. Hong Kong’s economic take-off was driven by a number of factors, of which the British administration was not even the most important. Before the arrival of Sir MacLehose in 1971 as the new governor, the colonial administration had little interest in neither the welfare of Hong Kong’s population nor the corruption of its government officials. Public spending on welfare was kept at a minimum, and public opinion was neglected. Perhaps this is not the Hong Kong under the British colonial administration that these commentators in their misguided nostalgia want to return to.
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In addition, the British colonial administration was sometimes more guilty of favoritism than some remember. Between 1976 and 1986, British business groups enjoyed a dominant position in both commercial manipulation and political representation. Large British groups such as Swire, the two Jardine groups, Hutchison, and others accounted for more than 50 percent of the entire stock market capitalization. British expatriates made up over half of the seats in both the Legislative and Executive Councils.
One can always cherry-pick certain metrics that would supposedly support the claim that Hong Kong was better off under the British, but in actuality, the city has handled its transition remarkably well. Hong Kong is still considered an international city, and is one of the most important economic centers in the world. The city has somewhat maintained its global position. Hong Kong’s economy has continued to grow and, where it has faltered, it has been part of larger global trends. And, as far as finance is concerned, it is perhaps more secure and dominant than it ever was under the British. The income distribution may be more unequal now than in the past, but this has been true of almost any developed economy, and is not limited to Hong Kong. It also has retained its position as the world’s freest economy for the 18th consecutive year, according to the Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom.
Hong Kong has transformed from one set of conditions (colonial rule under the British) to another set of conditions (“One Country, Two Systems”) almost seamlessly. Other countries attempting to work through such a transition have not been as successful: look at Japan’s “lost decade”, the chaos of post-Cold War Russia, or the current crises plaguing European countries.
This is no reason to be complacent: Hong Kong will face important challenges in the future, and such challenges need to be recognized. But, it is important to remember that this is not the first time Hong Kong’s decline has been predicted. One needs to only flip through old political cartoons in the 1980s and 1990s to see the worry and pessimism that permeated Hong Kong society. Locals were worried that the Handover would lead to a "crackdown”; investment would flee, and Hong Kong would quickly lose its status as an international financial center.
Of course, 1997 came and went, with little in the way of change. Hong Kong continued to attract foreign businessmen; the old British civil servants were replaced with young American and European bankers. The city preserved its globalized, multi-culture, independent and vibrant nature. The same pattern happened as it confronted other major challenges such as with the Asian Financial Crisis, with SARS, and with the Global Financial Crisis. Hong Kong has not only survived, but continued to thrive.
Hong Kong does owe a lot to its British heritage: namely, for providing the city with a firm infrastructural foundation, an efficient civil service and an international flavor that continues to serve the city well today. But, we should not pretend that the colonial era was a utopia, or that Hong Kong’s current situation is evidence of an inexorable decline.