Magazine article Newsweek International

Reinventing Hong Kong; Ten Years after the Change-Over, Hong Kong Is Positioning Itself to Become Asia's New York City

Magazine article Newsweek International

Reinventing Hong Kong; Ten Years after the Change-Over, Hong Kong Is Positioning Itself to Become Asia's New York City

Article excerpt

Byline: George Wehrfritz

On the rare days when Hong Kong's Victoria Peak isn't shrouded in smog, one of the world's great maritime hubs is on display from its heights.

Northward in Kowloon, modern container ports--their giant cranes lined up like robotic elephants on parade--load waiting freighters. Barges scurry like worker ants, flags from every port of convenience flap in the breeze and jetfoils buzz back and forth from Macau.

For decades, as East Asia's export economies rose to pre-eminence, the scene has grown more frenetic year by year. But sometime soon--or perhaps that day has already passed--the vast natural harbor that first attracted British opium traders to this spot on the South China Sea in the 1840s will reach its own peak, and start to fall.

The big question in Hong Kong--and it's one that has echoed since the jittery pre-handover days back in 1997--is elemental: what's next? Official statistics suggest a port that's maxed out, a maritime hub that has slipped from number one in the world to number three and sometime next year will likely be overtaken by a city that didn't even exist until the final few years of British rule: neighboring Shenzhen. What will happen, many Hong Kongers justifiably worry, when shipping follows the manufacturing up the Pearl River Delta into mainland China? Will their city slip to the global economic periphery, as some analysts forecast, becoming the 21st-century equivalent of Venice?

Ten years after the Union Jack flew over Hong Kong for the last time, change is most certainly afoot. But change, as they say, can be good. And although Hong Kong's traditional status as East Asia's premier shipping hub is already lost, the city is on the cusp of a reinvention so profound that the view from the peak will likely look quite different in a few decades. First there will be fewer freighters and barges. Then, perhaps, the dockyards will yield to new urban landscapes as they've done previously in places like London and New York. And, if all goes to plan, the scene that unfolds below the peak won't depend so much on whether the winds kick up to clear the toxic skies.

Think of Hong Kong as China's New York. Not today's N.Y.C., to be sure, but the Gotham that had hovered on the verge of bankruptcy in the 1970s and then struggled to reinvent itself by deregulating its two stock markets and becoming the world's leading financial center at the dawn of the digital age. Now China is the growth engine, and the transformation underway entails providing the financial savvy, rule-based business culture and global logistical reach that the vast Chinese economy demands but can't create for itself. ''Every economy changes as the major players [in the global arena] change," says Hong Kong's Financial Secretary Henry Tang. ''In the past we have always used China as a manufacturing base, but now we look to it as a market [with] a huge demand for world-class financial services. Hong Kong is where we supply it."

A ''paradigm shift" is underway in the city, Tang says with confidence. And in Hong Kong's case the consulting jargon actually fits, economically as well as politically. Truth be told, Tang and his fellow cabinet bosses are struggling to come to grips with what's happening all around them. Whereas New York confronted urban decay, high crime and tense race relations, Hong Kong's challenges center on today's rich-poor divide, quality-of-life issues such as air pollution and the city's still-unmet yearning for one-person, one-vote democracy.

Indeed, the influence tycoons exert on policymaking is under attack as never before. And the government's management--or, say its critics, mismanagement--of precious waterfronts and green spaces are major concerns among the middle class.

Although opinion polls show that most Hong Kong people support China's national government, Beijing's ham-fisted efforts to manage the city's democracy debate is engendering fear that the motherland could ultimately renege on its pledge to allow Hong Kong ''a high degree of autonomy. …

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