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HK needs lessons from other ‘world cities’ to solve current crisis

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HK needs lessons from other 'world cities' to solve current crisis

Updated: 2019-10-22 07:41

By Eric Stryson(HK Edition)

For frequent travelers, keeping up with Hong Kong's unfolding crisis has been a challenge. Each week brings new and unwelcomed disruption and negativity. After nearly 15 years in "Asia's World City", my return trips over this past month have felt increasingly unfamiliar, and in the absence of tourists, flights have been empty. Reflecting on our situation from vibrant destinations near and far has made clear to me that although we tend to see ourselves as the center of the universe, Hong Kong has much to learn from other world cities, and not just the usual suspects in Europe and America.

I had a vacation in Delhi. In the next 10 years, Delhi is on track to become the biggest city in the world, with a projected population of 37 million, in addition to being the capital of one of the biggest countries in the world – India. Fifty percent of this growth will come from internal migrants, in most cases, refugees. Hong Kong was also built by refugees and migrants in the postwar period. Yet their counterparts in Delhi may not enjoy the same good fortune as when colonial Hong Kong could arbitrage a poor Chinese mainland. Hong Kong's forerunners got lucky.

All young people in Hong Kong should visit India. It will help them appreciate the amenities of modern life we mostly take for granted and why Hong Kong's privileges are an exception in today's world. In spite of grievances far more severe than our own, no one is going around smashing up the Delhi metro. Although Indians got universal suffrage in 1947, the vast majority are far less free than we are in Hong Kong. Hundreds of millions lack safe, secure housing. The air is poisonous and suffocating. Masks are worn for safety, not to hide one's identity. Indians know too well that the right to vote is but one piece of a complex matrix of a well-functioning society. In this regard, many look with envy at China's success in providing the basics for a large population. While Delhi grows, sadly, Hong Kong is bracing for an exodus, as those with more resources than hope apply for Portuguese passports and prepare to flee.

Many might instead harbor dreams of moving to Japan, considered a high-status society. I was in Tokyo for two days of business meetings. Taxis are immaculate. Bento box lunches are works of art. Hong Kong admires Japan for all this, but does not seek to emulate it. The deafening noise of dim sum is totally un-Japanese. And let us not even talk about taxi hygiene. Yet, for the amount of money we pay, Hong Kong people should demand higher quality. We have been trained to accept mediocre food and subpar service at extortionate prices. Restaurants are forced to reduce overheads, portion sizes and food quality just to pay the rent. And a similar story plays out across society. Unlike Japan, Hong Kong has not figured out how to provide high quality and good value to the majority, in spite of a higher GDP per capita ($46,000 versus $39,000). Luxury is commodified for elites, while the majority just gets by. Why have our systems of wealth redistribution failed?

Dubai is another luxurious city sometimes called the "Hong Kong of the Middle East". After several days working with Dubai's civil servants, my colleagues and I were struck by their openness, positivity and international outlook. We learned about the vibrant social contract that exists between the government and its people, and their platforms for engagement, both personal and virtual. So why has our Hong Kong's engagement been so dysfunctional, we wondered. Our team struggles to even get meetings with Hong Kong civil servants, and when we do, there is a distinct lack of smiles or warmth.

But Dubai was only ever an informal British protectorate (from 1820 to 1971), not a crown colony. Its success was forged by the vision of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who subsequently invested oil revenues to create a world-class commercial hub. Hong Kong's colonial administrators, in contrast, pioneered an extractive colonial-capitalist economy, the enduring legacy of which is now driving frustrated youth to lay waste to the city. It has become painfully clear that the same laissez-faire, hands-off approach persists to this day.

Government shortcomings aside, upon my latest return, I was shocked by what I experienced of the devolution of civic engagement in our supposedly worldly city. At a lunch hour, workers from our office block had gathered to shout obscenities in the shopping mall below. Apparently, the nastiest vitriol was directed at the Chinese mainland. It was particularly jarring as our institute had just taken a group of international executives to Qingdao, where our guests from 12 countries marveled at the city few knew much about.

A relatively affluent second-tier city of 9 million people, Qingdao is the sort of "just another city in China" that many in Hong Kong are afraid of becoming. Yet the reality is that Qingdao now outstrips Hong Kong in many aspects of quality of life. Like Hong Kong, Qingdao has a storied heritage of imperialism, involving the Germans and Japanese, rather than the British, and is now a sought-after tourist destination. But can young people in Hong Kong talk intelligently about it, or the many other diverse regions of China? Are they even able to consider that there may be some things to learn from the mainland?

Hong Kong, a world city? Looking down from those empty airplane cabins, it appears instead as painfully self-absorbed, even parochial. Resolving the current divisions will require a maturity of thought and pragmatism toward the future, particularly in how Hong Kong sees itself in relation to the mainland. For the young, it means reading history, learning from others and engaging with the world outside their social media bubble, so much of which reinforces divisive, even racist, stereotypes. Creating a prosperous and inclusive future will require asking some hard, existential questions, at least for those who cannot, or choose not to, flee to Portugal.

The author is the managing director of the Global Institute For Tomorrow, an independent pan-Asian think tank with offices in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo.

(HK Edition 10/22/2019 page8)

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