`We Borrowed From America'

Gordon Y.S. Wu, chairman of Hopewell Holdings Ltd., stands out as one of the pioneer investors in China. After Deng Xiaoping opened China's economy to the outside world in 1978, Wu had a vision of linking Hong Kong with China and masterminded the construction of a superhighway that joined the two. Today, he claims to be the biggest investor in China, with $4.5 billion worth of projects there. The 61-year-old Wu spoke with BUSINESS WEEK's Joyce Barnathan about his views of Hong Kong after July 1--and beyond.

Q: What is your vision of how Hong Kong and China will be 10 years from now?

A: There will be even more integration with China. In 10 years' time...Guangzhou becomes [part of a] Greater Hong Kong, like the twin cities, Fort Worth-Dallas. Hong Kong people will drive cars all over the Pearl River Delta region.

Q: So the border will be more porous?

A: Not porous, but crossing the border will be more routine.

Q: Are you concerned that Hong Kong's system will be eroded?

A: I am not concerned at all. China is actually hoping that Hong Kong can help them [in this way]. You maintain the standards here, and this is the guiding light. It's like the long-lost big brother who all of a sudden goes back to the family. The patriarch of the family says: "Look kids, this is your successful brother. Learn from his example."

Q: What's the secret to Hong Kong's success?

A: We borrowed from America. America is a great nation because it is a great melting pot. Hong Kong adopted the American immigration policy in commerce. There is a level playing field for everybody, foreign or indigenous. Hong Kong has grown so strong because foreign expertise and foreign capital came in and meshed with the local.

Q: There is a lot of talk about the government coming up with an industrial policy as a way to upgrade the Hong Kong economy.

A: I use the old American saying: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. We should prepare the population so that they can do high tech. How do you do that? Education of the masses.

Q: What about the free flow of information?

A: That's guaranteed. The Internet is not going to be censored. I don't know how it can be censored.

Q: Well, they are trying in China.

A: Which is stupid. There is just no way you can stop the flow of information...with the fax machine, Internet, CNN, newspapers, BUSINESS WEEK.

Q: The new government is reinstating some laws that would somewhat restrict certain civil liberties.

A: I support the tightening. If they want to demonstrate against the Hong Kong government, the Hong Kong government will welcome that. You can criticize [chief executive] Tung Chee-hwa. That's no problem. But I don't want to see people using Hong Kong as a base to criticize Beijing...

Q: Do you have any reservations about C.H. Tung?

A: I respect his views. He is not a radical leader, but rather a great compromiser. He will try to do the right thing and the intelligent thing.

Q: The problem is that a lot of people think Hong Kong should not compromise with China.

A: I think Hong Kong should compromise with everybody.

Q: Would you ever consider leaving Hong Kong?

A: No.

Q: Why do you think Beijing is giving Hong Kong 50 years to enjoy a high degree of autonomy?

A: Those 50 years are not for Hong Kong. Basically they're for China. It's not because they are nice to us. They're nice to themselves. They are giving themselves some breathing room and time to [catch up].

Q: How impressed are you with China's pace of economic development?

A: No one can deny China's spectacular success. Today there are more than $100 billion in foreign currency reserves. I am sure if somebody whispered in the ear of Deng Xiaoping that your biggest problem in the year 1997 would be how to deal with the trade surplus with the U.S. and the $100 billion in reserves, he would have committed you to a lunatic asylum.

Q: But in 50 years, China and Hong Kong are still likely to be very different societies.

A: In 2047, China will not be the same as Hong Kong, but it will be close enough. So that you'll probably have a situation like in the U.S. and Canada--not much of an integration problem.