That’s the headline of an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. I’ll get to the editorial in a moment.
That’s a heated statement, and I’m sure they knew it. I’m an American and I can just try to imagine what it might have been like around, oh, 1800 or so, had some newspaper printed an editorial titled The United States Was Better Under the British. Maybe someone did back then. I don’t know.
What I do know is that back in ’97, when all of the HK Chinese were busy grabbing second passports and so worried about what the Chinese takeover (ahem, they called it The Return) would mean. People prophesied tanks rolling down Nathan Road on July 1, 1997. Believe me, if you weren’t here then, you don’t know what the mood was like. I said at the time (and, no, I was not alone in this), that China wasn’t going to fuck up Hong Kong over night, that it was going to be a long, slow decline. The pace of that decline seems to be quickening lately. The source of that decline isn’t China, it’s Hong Kong. One might debate that – one could say that it was decisions made by China – in particular the inept government they forced upon us – that was responsible. And there’s the economics of it as well – China tried to boost Hong Kong’s economy during tougher times by allowing more mainlanders – rich mainlanders – to come into our SAR, to shop, to spend money, to buy Rolexes and gold and over-priced shitbox flats. What it still comes down to for me is the ever increasing power of the small handful of HK billionaires and companies that really run things here, the Hutchisons and Hendersons and New World and the rest. Unchecked power, unchecked greed.
The hubris of our unelected officials is astonishing. Now we have reports in the papers that in his final days in office, Donald Tsang, Lord Bowtie, took a little jaunt to Macau, had dinner with known gangsters, stayed on some friend’s multi-million dollar yacht. Mr. Tsang says he paid his own way, paying the equivalent of a hydrofoil ticket (HK$150) – this boat normally rents out at HK$6,000 per day.
And now we find out that the Donald will spend his retirement in a 6,500 square foot penthouse – not in Hong Kong but in Shenzhen – where he will be paying a monthly rent of under HK$100k per month, despite the landlord having spent more than 10 million yuan on renovating the flat. It’s good to be the king, ain’t it, Donald?
Now, try to follow this bit: the building that flat is in was developed by one Bill Wong Cho-bau. The SCMP tells us: Wong is a major investor in Digital Broadcasting Company (DBC), a company linked to Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, a former member of Tsang’s cabinet. Last month Hong Kong’s government gave its approval for the former education minister to be appointed DBC’s chairman. However, under the Telecommunications Ordinance, Li could have been barred from such a position, because his brother, David Li Kwok-po, Bank of East Asia chairman, is a director of another big media player, PCCW.
Now, contrast that with this story: A family that has lived in Fanling’s Ma Shi Po village for over 30 years gave up legal action on Wednesday against Henderson Land for evicting them from their home, and are left with their last weapon – appealing to the company’s sense of decency.
Henderson? Sense of decency? Apparently the person in the family who signed the land over to Henderson was illiterate.
And now, this farce of an “election” for the Donald’s replacement. Apparently the only people allowed to “run” in this election are millionaires who have sworn dual allegiance to China and Li Ka-Shing. Public opinion polls show that the public wants nothing to do with fancy pants Henry Tang, Mr. I’ve got a 2400 square foot underground lair but hey, don’t look at me, blame my wife! Apparently she was building this as a way to lure him back from his rumored affairs and illegitimate babies.
Tanks rolling down Nathan Road on July 1, 1997, might at least have been a more honest approach to this.
And now, since it’s behind a paywall, here’s the entire WSJ editorial, written by Hugo Restall, the Editorial Page Editor of the Wall Street Journal Asia.
The slow-motion implosion of Henry Tang, Beijing’s pick to be Hong Kong’s next chief executive, brings to mind a speech given shortly before the 1997 handover by former Far Eastern Economic Review Editor Derek Davies. In “Two Cheers for Colonialism,” Mr. Davies attempted to explain why the city flourished under the British. Fifteen years later, the Chinese officials who are having trouble running Hong Kong might want to give it a read.
The Brits created a relatively uncorrupt and competent civil service to run the city day-to-day. “They take enormous satisfaction in minutes, protocol, proper channels, precedents,” as Mr. Davies described them, “even in the red tape that binds up their files inside the neat cubby holes within their registries.” Their slavish adherence to bureaucratic procedure helped create respect for the rule of law and prevented abuses of power.
Above the civil servants sat the career-grade officials appointed from London. These nabobs were often arrogant, affecting a contempt for journalists and other “unhelpful” critics. But they did respond to public opinion as transmitted through the newspapers and other channels.
Part of the reason they did was that Hong Kong officials were accountable to a democratically elected government in Britain—a government sensitive to accusations of mismanaging a colony. Still, local officials often disobeyed London when it was in the local interest—for this reason frustrated Colonial Office mandarins sometimes dubbed the city “The Republic of Hong Kong.” And for many decades the city boasted a higher standard of governance than the mother country.
Mr. Davies nailed the real reason Hong Kong officials were so driven to excel: “Precisely because they were aware of their own anachronism, the questionable legitimacy of an alien, non-elected government they strove not to alienate the population. Their nervousness made them sensitive.”
The communists claim that the European powers stripped their colonies of natural resources and used them as captive markets for their manufacturers. But Hong Kong, devoid of resources other than refugees from communism, attracted investment and built up light industry to export back to Britain. And as for taking back the profits, Mr. Davies noted, “No British company here would have been mad enough to have repatriated its profits back to heavily-taxed, regularly devaluing Britain.”
Most expatriate officials retired to Blighty, so they were less tempted to do favors for the local business elite. The government rewarded them with pensions and OBEs. A Lands Department bureaucrat didn’t have to worry whether his child would be able to find employment in Hong Kong if a decision went against the largest property developer.
Contrast all this with Hong Kong after the handover. The government is still not democratic, but now it is accountable only to a highly corrupt and abusive single-party state. The first chief executive, Tung Chee Hwa, and Beijing’s favorite to take the post next month, Henry Tang, are both members of the Shanghainese business elite that moved to the city after 1949. The civil service is localized.
Many consequences flow from these changes, several of which involve land, which is all leased from the government. Real-estate development and appreciation is the biggest source of wealth in Hong Kong, a major source of public revenue and also the source of most discontent.
In recent years, the Lands Department has made “mistakes” in negotiating leases that have allowed developers to make billions of Hong Kong dollars in extra profit. Several high-level officials have also left to work for the developers. This has bred public cynicism that Hong Kong is sinking into crony capitalism.
This helps explain why the public is so upset with Mr. Tang for illegally adding 2,400 square feet of extra floor space to his house. Likewise Michael Suen, now the secretary for education, failed to heed a 2006 order from the Lands Department to dismantle an illegal addition to his home. His offense was arguably worse, since he was secretary for housing, planning and lands at the time.
In both cases the issue is not just a matter of zoning and safety; illegal additions cheat the government out of revenue. But it’s unlikely Mr. Tang will face prosecution because nobody above or below him is independent enough to demand accountability. So now there is one set of rules for the public and another for the business and political elites. Under the British, Hong Kong had the best of both worlds, the protections of democracy and the efficiency of all-powerful but nervous administrators imported from London. Now it has the worst of both worlds, an increasingly corrupt and feckless local ruling class backstopped by an authoritarian regime. The only good news is that the media remain free to expose scandals, but one has to wonder for how much longer.
Hong Kong’s Chinese rulers have been slow to realize that the only way to keep Hong Kong the same is to accept change. It is no longer a city of refugees happy to accept rule by outsiders. And democracy is the only system that can match the hybrid form of political accountability enjoyed under the British.
Mr. Davies ended his appraisal of colonialism’s faults and virtues thus: “I only hope and trust that a local Chinese will never draw a future British visitor aside and whisper to him that Hong Kong was better ruled by the foreign devils.” Fifteen years later, that sentiment is becoming common.
I’m not going to say I agree with 100% of what’s written here. And no matter what is written, China is not going to change its spots over night and allow free elections and break up the oligopolies running this place. Henry Tang is still going to be the next C.E. (even if someone manages to produce a picture of him shooting a dog or having sex with a platypus). It’s sound and fury, signifying nothing, but it still feels kind of nice that it’s being said so loud.
(Okay, maybe I’m just in a bad mood tonight.)