Hong Kong Inheritance: The Arts and Higher Education

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CHRIS Patten, after appointment as Governor of Hong Kong, was reported to have said that China was getting the best inheritance since Cleopatra. It certainly is one that could not have been predicted in, say, 1948/49 when Mao swept across China to take power, and to this day an inheritance a lot better than probably most people in Britain realise. I have just returned from a short visit, the second since leaving in 1983, and can certify that the place is as electric, ebullient, and downright successful (and as noisy) as it has ever been. The economy, now inextricably entangled with that of Guangdong Province and through that province with that of the rest of China, is expanding rapidly and the gains of that expansion are being spread into the public sector generally. Expenditure on social welfare, for example, is expected to grow by over 25 per cent over the next four years, and that on health by nearly the same amount. Nor are they starting from a low base -- primary health care delivery has for some time been better than that in Britain, with the infant mortality rate in 1990 at 5.9 in Hong Kong and 7.9 in Britain, and the expectation of life, despite the incursion of so many refugees, 74.6 for men and 80.3 for women in Hong Kong as compared with 72.4 for men and 78.0 for women in Britain. The crude facts of the Hong Kong inheritance for China can easily be garnered from the massive report produced each year by the Hong Kong Government; but two areas, the arts and higher education, in which I happen to have some first-hand knowledge, may be of interest.

The popular gibe thirty years ago was that Hong Kong was a cultural desert, a gibe that could never be true as long as the place was 98 per cent Chinese. The Chinese are perhaps the most culturally conscious people on earth. What Hong Kong was until about fifteen years ago was a place deprived of cultural facilities, mainly because the mostly expatriate ruling elite grossly underestimated popular interest in the arts.

When I first arrived there in the autumn of 1967 it was a city of about five million with one theatre of 463 seats, one concert hall with 1,476 seats, two small lecture/committee rooms available for public use, and a small, not very well equipped exhibition area. There were no professional performing arts groups of any sort. It was dismay over this lack of facilities that led me and a few others to start the Arts Centre project, a project which even before it opened in the autumn of 1977 acted as the trigger for a development of arts facilities unequalled in the world.

Hong Kong today, with a population still barely six million, instead of two facilities with a total of 1,939 seats and no professional companies, has acquired in less than twenty years 14 multi-purpose venues with 15,596 seats, a further 14 performing arts venues, three professional drama companies, three professional dance companies, and two professional orchestras, both up to international recording standards. And still in the lead, chronologically and artistically, and still operating, as it started, without any subsidy from public funds, is the Hong Kong Arts Centre. The very fact that I can quote figures like these is itself a tribute to the Arts Centre, because they are no more than tit-bits taken from the 400-page Hong Kong Arts Directory, produced by the Hong Kong Arts Resource and Information Centre, which is an off-shoot of the Centre and based in the Centre.

The peculiarity and strength of the Centre is that it is an independent organisation operating without public subsidy, sometimes with difficulty but always with success. 1991/92 was one of the more successful years, and the audited accounts show an operating surplus of over 12 per cent, and liquid reserves of over 32 per cent, of the year's expenditure of roughly HK$32 1/2m (about |pounds~2.6m at current exchange rates). How on earth, it may be asked, can an arts centre produce figures like that?

The answer is that it was planned, designed, and built that way. …