Hong Kong Reflections

Dr. Walker is Director of the Fraser Institute, Vancouver, Canada.

The citizens of Hong Kong have expressed a great deal of concern about what will happen once the tiny British colony falls under the control of the People’s Republic of China in 1997. As I discovered during a recent visit to Hong Kong, the fear is not that the Chinese have malicious intentions, but that they will not know how to manage Hong Kong’s affairs so as to avoid interfering with its highly successful economy.

For one thing, despite recent moves toward openness and more freedom in China, deeply conservative forces within the bureaucratic structure are impeding the process. While undoubtedly some of the impediments have been put up by bureaucrats who do not wish to relinquish their power, many of the problems are caused by the fact that Chinese bureaucrats simply do not know how to encourage and assist the economic process—how to practice laissez faire. They do not yet know how to be creatively inactive.

The consequence is that on the Chinese side of the border the average income is $250 per year whereas on the Hong Kong side it is $8,000. It is not surprising that the residents of Hong Kong look upon the prospect of more “help” from China with some dismay. But they are even more concerned about their civil freedoms.

Hong Kong has enjoyed a large measure of freedom of the press, freedom to own or lease property, freedom of travel and communication, and so on, despite its lack of political freedom. Its government is appointed by the British, and there are no real elections, although there is now a council with representatives from sectional and professional groups.

The impending replacement of the British as the dominant outside force already has begun to have its effects. Hong Kong is beginning to transform itself into a colony of China and is shedding British colonial attitudes. This is evident in the travel patterns of business people, scholars, and officials who instead of going to London increasingly are Beijing bound. It is also evident in the increasing guardedness of those who make public statements and who have a public profile in institutions that will remain when the British Governor leaves.

With few exceptions, people who speak out try to avoid irritating Chinese officials. Accordingly, while there is no censorship, there is increasing conformity to the Chinese line. It is easy to understand why this is so. The citizens of Hong Kong will not be able to vote with their feet if they do not wish to remain when British colonial status ends in 1997. Most do not have citizenship in other countries nor can they expect easily to obtain it.

While Chinese officials have assured the people of Hong Kong that the existing laws, regulations, and freedoms will be retained under the new regime, one does not have to dig far into the existing structure to find some very disconcerting things. For example, there are laws which provide for censorship of the press in the event of a serious threat to the colony. In the hands of the existing administration, monitored at a distance by the British Parliament, this has meant no censorship in practice. Under the administration of a Chinese bureaucracy which has known only censorship, quite another situation is probable. The same is true of other seemingly innocent laws and regulations which in different application could produce a radically altered political and economic climate.

There is hope, however, in that there is a great thirst in China for knowledge about how free enterprise economies operate. One of the most hopeful signs in this regard is the recent birth in Hong Kong of a new institute called The Hong Kong Centre for Economic Research. One of the functions of this new group will be to translate into Chinese and make available to Chinese policy makers and intellectuals books and studies that will show them how a free economy works and what the appropriate role of government is in a free society. In the end, of course, it is ideas that will determine the fate of Hong Kong and China.

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