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Tue, Mar 12, 2002 - Page 19 News List

Can Hong Kong afford to be either special or autonomous?

The challenge before Hong Kong is to face its own maturity. Or, to put it another way, it must make the transition away from the transitional place it used to be

By Patrick Smith  /  BLOOMBERG , NORFOLK, CONNECTICUT

Last week was a big one for Hong Kong, wasn't it? Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji (朱鎔基) confirmed Tung Chee-hwa (董建華) for a second five-year term as chief executive of the territory. Then Financial Secretary Anthony Leung announced his first budget. It's hard to decide which to be less excited about.

Tung's reappointment, of course, came after an election campaign -- can we call it such? -- that had all the political edge of Brezhnev's last run in Moscow. By the kindest accounts, the budget Leung advanced for the fiscal year starting April 1 was conservative. Considering that it all but ignored a fiscal deficit that is at the heart of Hong Kong's structural problems, there are less gentle terms for this document.

A big week, then, precisely for its emblems of inertia.

Let's not be boring and blame Tung for all that ails Hong Kong. True, he's something less than a democratic icon. As many in Hong Kong see it, he doesn't represent the territory's interests so much as Beijing's and those of the magnates who sit atop Hong Kong's economy. It's a problem, certainly.

It's too easy to lay the blame on Tung, whom supporters say is fundamentally committed to the right policies. Nor can one credibly suggest that Leung, as a financial secretary with little mileage on his odometer, must be singled out for his incompetence.

Again, a facile analysis.

No, better to take the personalities out of it and see both men as symptoms of Hong Kong's deeper difficulties. On the one hand, the territory evinces a strong resistance to facing its problems squarely -- the old agility isn't there. On the other, it has a political and administrative structure that's stacked against the very thing Hong Kong needs most: debate, discussion, rambunctious politics. Let's be daring and call it democracy.

Beyond the current recession, even beyond the loss of confidence Hong Kong suffered when the Asia crisis punctured the almighty property market and thereby knocked the whole economy off kilter, the challenge before Hong Kong is to face its own maturity. To put it another way, Hong Kong must learn to accept itself as a settled society. Or another: Hong Kong must make the transition away from the transitional place it used to be.

If there's a prevalent emotion in the territory these days, China envy is among the top contenders. It's familiar across the region, of course, but you find in Hong Kong a jealousy of Shanghai's admittedly daunting dynamism that borders on self-flagellation.

"They want it," a friend said recently of all those Shanghai-dwellers. "They want what they're going to become, and they want it more than Hong Kong wants to remain Hong Kong."

True enough, as far as it goes. But there are a couple of further points worth making about the Shanghai phenomenon and what it means for Hong Kong.

First, implicit in Shanghai's dynamism is a widespread understanding that those participating in the enterprise are contributing to a larger whole -- that burgeoning, half-formed thing called China. This recognition may be limited to the mainland's business class, but it shows up a missing ingredient in Hong Kong.

To put the point plainly, Hong Kong must turn itself from a port, a market, and a commercial center into a society -- a polity. The sense of belonging and identity is strong enough -- has been for more than a decade -- but the mechanisms aren't there.

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