City Dispatch: Hong Kong

City Dispatch: Hong Kong

Raymond Chandler has been a Hong Kong expat resident since 2005…




Raymond Chandler

Hong Kong is regularly lauded for the openness of its economy – it is 3rd out of 141 countries included by the World Economic Forum in its latest global competitiveness ranking – and few would dispute that it is a very easy place to do business. Bank accounts and company registration can be completed in a matter of hours. Public services – especially those concerned with business or taxation – are generally easy to navigate. Corruption is rare. Getting in and out of the city from the remarkably efficient airport – ranked 5th in the 2019 World’s Best Airports awards – is never a chore. And with the exception of rainy Fridays between 5 and 8pm, taxis are always in plentiful supply.

"People can get on with making money however they see fit, assuming it doesn't bother anyone else too much. They can also say (and print) more or less what they like and have freedom of assembly. These freedoms are part of the appeal to foreign businesses, too."

Hong Kong’s positives are easy to iterate, as are its negatives: appalling air quality (consult the ‘Hedley Environmental Index‘ to see just how bad), lack of cultural depth (try finding world class jazz in “Asia’s World City”) and enervating materialism (it has a local chain store named “God”, which seems apt given the number of people who worship at the city’s malls every weekend). A lack of land leads to sky-high property prices (also, sky-high property) and cramped accommodation. Given all this, there are few expats who haven’t thought – for a while, at least – about moving out, given the opportunity.

But this is a relatively shallow reading of Hong Kong’s appeal and problems. Its superiority over other cities in Asia (from the point of view of the expat businessperson) stems from its embodiment of what Isaiah Berlin called “negative freedom”; that is, the freedom to be let alone to pursue whatever ends one likes; “laissez-faire” capitalism in more conventional economic jargon. People can get on with making money however they see fit, assuming it doesn’t bother anyone else too much. They can also say (and print) more or less what they like and have freedom of assembly. These freedoms are part of the appeal to foreign businesses, too.

These freedoms are also incomplete – and hence under threat – owing to the legacy of Hong Kong’s unusual constitutional evolution. As a valuable port – first for the opium trade and later for more salubrious aspects of British Imperialism – governance was historically light-touch. Rule of law and transparency were nonetheless part of the successful mix: contrast Macau, which the Portuguese more or less relinquished to Triad gangs. Belatedly, but with increasing urgency after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the British sought to introduce aspects of ‘democratic’ governance to Hong Kong. But with the handover already agreed the job was only half done by 1997, when mainland China regained authority over the territory under a rubric known as “One Country, Two Systems”.

The Basic Law constitution that governs Hong Kong until 2047 provides for the introduction of universal suffrage for the election of the city’s chief executive, but the ultimate authority remains Beijing – which has already intimated that it won’t accept the public nomination of candidates (i.e. everyone can vote, but only Beijing-sanctioned candidates can run). The situation is volatile because Hong Kong has a robust civil society that takes to the streets at every opportunity – almost always peacefully – and remains extremely distrustful of the mainland government. Distrust rose significantly in early June – a sensitive time of year given Hong Kong is the only place in China that commemorates Tiananmen – when Beijing released a white paper “clarifying” the “One Country, Two Systems” concept. This left no one in any doubt that Hong Kong enjoys its freedoms only with the grace and tolerance of the mainland Communist Party government.

The stage is set for a showdown over universal suffrage this summer, as protesters have threatened to “Occupy Central”, thereby disrupting business, if the city government doesn’t propose an acceptable (i.e. democratic) method for nominating candidates to run as the next chief executive in 2017. In doing so the protesters embody all that is laudable about Hong Kong, namely its embodiment of “negative freedom” – to do as you wish and be governed by whom you wish. By targeting the business district they also correctly identify what first made the city an important one: the freedom to make money as you wish.

These freedoms are inextricably combined, which is what makes the place so appealing. (It is worth contrasting Singapore at this juncture – a city-state that has all the institutional trappings of democracy, including universal suffrage, but one-party rule and no toleration of civic dissent.) But it is clear that the city’s ultimate leaders don’t recognise the truth of this. So for expats wondering if poor air quality and cramped housing take the shine off the place, all I can say is enjoy Hong Kong while it lasts.

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