Thu, Nov 15, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Land is to Hong Kong what oil is to a Gulf state

Money is behind the absence of discontent and lack of political argument since the handover of Hong Kong by the British

By Ian Jack  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Having breakfast at my hotel in Hong Kong, 60 floors up, I looked down over the harbor and counted the ships. Two dozen of them were moving, bow waves and wakes creasing the narrows between Hong Kong island and Kowloon: ferries, tugs, barges and a couple of Star Line liners returning through the mist from the overnight casino cruises that allow passengers to gamble legally outside Hong Kong's territorial waters. More ships were at anchor, awaiting their place at the container wharves.

Hong Kong is no longer the world's busiest port -- that position is held by Singapore and both ports will soon be overtaken by Shenzhen and Shanghai -- but 500 ships still call here every week, mainly to load the machine-made products of Guangdong, which has become the factory to the world.

A hundred years ago the Thames was as crowded and just as befogged: in Hong Kong, the carbon emissions from those Guangdong factories and power stations drift south and east, so that for nearly a fifth of the annual daylight hours one side of Hong Kong harbor, which takes seven minutes to cross by ferry, is invisible to the other.

But it was not Joseph Conrad's river that I thought about when I glanced at the newspapers and studied the view. At breakfast I thought about Detroit. On Wednesday, General Motors reported a loss of US$39 billion, among the biggest ever for a multinational company, while British Airways announced that after 50 years of service it would stop flying to the city that was once the automotive trade's world capital and the sixth (by some estimates, the fourth) largest city in the US. Ford is said to be on the verge of bankruptcy, more than 320,000 workers have lost their jobs in the US vehicle and auto -- parts manufacturing in the past seven years.

Detroit is a ruin to equal Grozny or Machu Picchu. From the air, you see a huddle of old skyscrapers surrounded by many hectares of scrubland where the inner suburbs once stood.

On the ground, the streets of downtown Detroit -- represented aerially by the huddle of skyscrapers -- are almost empty of cars and people. The abandoned railroad terminus rises in six stories from an open plain of vacant lots. When I went there three years ago to see Diego Rivera's famous murals of car-making in the Detroit Institute of Arts, an old man approached me on the gallery steps to ask where I was from, lone strangers being so unusual as to be welcomed.

Exemplifying the change in the world's balance of power by contrasting the fortunes of Detroit and Hong Kong is too crude a trick. Still, reading reports from the Western world in Hong Kong is rather like hearing about a bitter winter from the vantage point of a warm spring. Last week, Alibaba.com, a Web site connecting China's entrepreneurs to buyers and sellers in the rest of the world, raised US$1.5 billion in its first public offering on the Hong Kong exchange, while, thanks to feverish share-buying in Shanghai, the worth of PetroChina rose to more than US$1 trillion, the highest market capitalization of any company in history.

The soundtrack to the harbor view is the noise of tower blocks being built, often on land reclaimed from the sea.

The harbor has shrunk and goes on shrinking and Hong Kong has exported most of its factories to Guangdong. What Hong Kong does more than ever is money. Turn away from the harbor and toward Hong Kong island's high ridge: the power of money rises vertically in tower after tower, sometimes topped off, retro-style, in simple versions of the Chrysler or Empire State buildings.

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