All Commentary
Sunday, October 1, 1989

Book Review: Hong Kong byJan Morris

Random House, 400 Hahn Road, Westminster, MD 21157 • 1988 • 359 pages • $19.95 doth

“Hong Kong,” says British writer Jan Morris in her new book, “has always been the brazen embodiment of free enterprise.” Although Hong Kong has existed on the principle of laissez faire as a British colony for 150 years, it is only since the 1949 revolution in China sent hordes of refugees to this tiny place that it has truly flourished.

That, of course, is ironic. At the same time that Mao Zedong in mainland China was proving that Communism simply doesn’t work, industrious Chinese people in Hong Kong were eagerly showing how effectively capitalism does. While China with its vast natural resources stagnated, Hong Kong, with almost nothing to boast of but an excellent harbor, proved the assertion that American economist Julian Simon makes so well in his book, The Ultimate Resource: “Our cornucopia is the human mind and heart,” he wrote, “and not a Santa Claus environment.” As Simon puts it further on, “The ultimate resource is peo-ple-skilled, spirited, and hopeful people who will exert their wills and imagination for their own benefit, and so, inevitably, for the benefit of us all.”

Ironically, politically speaking, the government Britain provided for Hong Kong is scarcely more democratic than the one provided for one billion Chinese by Beijing. As Morris points out, the population of Hong Kong “enjoys freedom of speech and opportunity, but no freedom at all to choose its rulers.”

How all this came about is the subject of Morris’s fine book. Skillfully alternating chapters on Hong Kong’s historical development with portraits of its present people, procedures, and problems, she offers the reader both great delights and much insight.

The picture she paints is certainly not all pretty. Initially, Hong Kong was a focal point for the opium trade. Over the years, it has been plagued by piracy, corruption, counterfeiting, and discrimination. In one particularly poignant tale, the author points out that Chinese coolies were not allowed to use the tram to carry heavy supplies of items such as coal and ice to British homes nestled in the upper elevations. “In 1921 a compassionate clergyman discovered that one small laborer, aged six, spent twelve hours a day, six days a week, carrying fifty- eight-pound loads of coal from the waterfront to a house of lofty eminence.”

Nor is Hong Kong’s capitalism pure. Confronted by massive influxes of refugees in recent years, the government has felt obliged both to establish public housing and to provide low-cost medical care.

But throughout its existence, private enterprise has been the prevalent factor in this British colony. Most notable, of course, were great British merchants, such as Jardine, Matheson, and Swire. Yet the extent of private enterprise is truly astonishing. A century ago, even “public lavatories were run by private contractors.” In more modern times, elements of public transportation, such as the underwater tunnel which connects the island of Hong Kong with Kowloon on the mainland, are profit-making enterprises.

What will happen when Hong Kong reverts to Chinese control in 19977 The question arose on my own brief visit to the area two years ago when, with a group of American economists, I visited a joint American-Thai feed mill in Shen-zhen, one of the flourishing new enterprises just inside the Chinese border north of Hong Kong. In response to this question, the young American finance officer who had been our able and outspoken guide responded that he believed the question should be reversed: we really should be asking what will happen when Hong Kong takes over China!

The return of Hong Kong to Chinese control, Morris feels, is inevitable, because it was taken under what the Chinese consider the “unequal treaties” imposed on a declining Chinese empireby emerging Western empires during the last century. Yet while noting that once-prosperous Shanghai, under Communist domination, has been reduced to “dingy impotence,” to a large extent the author echoes the young American finance officer. Rapid commercial and manufacturing developments not only in Shenzhen but also northward to Guangzhou (Canton) already bespeak Hong Kong’s strong influence on its great northern neighbor.

The reader who completes the tour through Morris’s pages will not put the book down with a heavy heart. Rather than lament the plight confronting Hong Kong’s residents, one is more inclined to take comfort from the success of the Chinese in Hong Kong (as well as in nearby Taiwan) which amply demonstrates that prosperity is not a uniquely Western phenomenon. Furthermore, the success of the Chinese expatriates may have had more than a little to do with turning the present regime in Beijing away from the pathetic failure of Marxism and toward the principles of the free market. That may well be the most important achievement of this tiny but remarkable colony.
Professor Shannon teaches in the Economics Department at Clemson University.

  • Dr. Shannon was professor of economics at Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina.