There is an expression: Better to be lucky than smart. Which one is Hong Kong?
It is lucky that some 30 years ago China began to open its economy, and Hong Kong was well placed — geographically, culturally and developmentally — to sell services and transfer skills.
But, of course, Hong Kong could have botched these opportunities the way those top-floor restaurants are all so famously badly managed. Sometimes, good location can be a curse – people will come for the view anyway, so why try any harder?
Hong Kong, obviously, has not botched its opportunities.
Rather, it has been an extremely effective partner for China, in the early days by helping build the country’s manufacturing sector and today by globalizing its currency and bond markets.
One thing that makes Hong Kong competitive is that it works.
Its buses and ferries run on time; its infrastructure is high quality; its banks regulated by international standards; bureaucracy is one of the smoothest in the world for doing anything from getting a marriage licence to starting a business.
Human resources play a substantial role in its workability. Hong Kong professionals tend to be trilingual, with myriad qualifications attached to their names (CPA, CFA, MBA, etc).
On top of this strong knowledge base is creativity, drive, terrific work ethic and an openness to importing overseas talent.
Of course, most rich cities have talented elites.
What stands out here is the level of commitment seen in the working classes: the good taxi driver, the noodle waiter frantically alerting customers to a table that has opened, the office cleaners who will push right under your feet with their vacuums to get at some little bit of biscuit crumb under your desk.
Why do they care so much? Their pay is peanuts, rubbish really.
Other countries with wage disparities as dramatic as Hong Kong’s seem to suffer more problems of rage, of crime, of social disorder.
But Hong Kong has what one could almost say “virtuous poor”. This could just be a cultural phenomenon but it’s also a sign that the government has handled the social contract reasonably well.
The basics such as housing and health are covered for the poor; there are civil rights; there are trustworthy and transparent courts.
When there is rage, it is usually on the part of the educated middle classes, but it has often been a very useful rage, one that has improved the government’s effectiveness over the years.
In 1973, for instance, students poured out into the streets in protest after Hong Kong’s chief police superintendent, Peter Godber, absconded with ill-gotten assets.
This was not rank revolution but righteous rebellion. Within a year, the British government responded by setting up the Independent Commission Against Corruption. Today, Hong Kong has one of the most corruption-free civil services in the world.
The Umbrella Revolution is carrying on this spirit of righteous rebellion. What began with mostly students swelled to massive crowds after the police responded with tear gas and violence.
Perhaps the pro-democracy demonstrators feel Hong Kong’s success is based more on virtue than luck. Hong Kong is a smart, rational, hard-working city with much to teach China, and the world, about competitiveness.
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