Hong Kong's Unhealthy Identity Crisis

The atypical pneumonia outbreak in nearby Southern China shows the nearness of -- and the gulf between -- the city and its big neighbor

By Bruce Einhorn

Hong Kong usually feels like a rather safe place. For a city of almost 7 million people, it has virtually no crime. This is a town where just about every woman I know has no hesitation to walk outside after dark. The police seem to have plenty of time on their hands. Last year, when somebody stole a computer from BusinessWeek's offices, a uniformed cop, two detectives, and a fingerprint expert quickly hopped over, and they later had me go with them back to the station so I could give them enough information.

The September 11 terrorism attacks in the U.S. only added to Hong Kong's feeling of relative security. Yes, bombs have been set off in nearby Bali and Mindinao, as well as at two Beijing universities recently. But compared to New York or even Singapore, Hong Kong hasn't been affected much by war in geopolitical tensions, especially over Iraq. But the threat of a mysterious disease? Ah, that's another story.

Hong Kong health authorities are busy trying to assure everyone here that a strange and deadly new strain of pneumonia doesn't pose a risk of massive deaths. The disease originated in Southern China and has spread to countries around Asia.


  Now it seems to be moving to the rest of the world. But Hong Kong has become ground zero. Since the beginning of the month, severe acute respiratory syndrome, as it is being called in most places, has hospitalized more than 240 people here -- far more than anywhere else in the world.

In Hong Kong, though, rather than using "SARS" as shorthand for the disease, the government consistently calls it "atypical pneumonia." Why? Perhaps because Hong Kong is officially a "Special Administrative Region" of China, or SAR. For government officials already worried that Hong Kong's economy will suffer because of the mystery bug, calling it SARS would focus even more attention on Hong Kong's role in its spread around the globe.

The disease poses a classic problem for health and public-safety bureaucrats. "As a community, we're responding to the situation professionally and responsibly," Tourism Commissioner Eva Cheng declared in a speech on Mar. 20, the same day the government announced the sixth fatality in Hong Kong from the disease. "There is no better way to show the world that Hong Kong is indeed Asia's World City. The world perceives Hong Kong positively because of the way we're managing the current situation."

Maybe. Certainly, local health officials are earning better marks than their counterparts in China, where bureaucrats seem to have been less than candid about the extent of the outbreak that caused widespread panic among residents of Guangzhou last month (see BW Online, 3/21/03, "The Deadly Effects of Suppressed Info").


  Chinese officials claim that only a handful of people died and that the outbreak quickly petered out. But can they be believed? After all, China is a country where the government doesn't even issue trustworthy statistics about economic growth, much less a public-health danger. Reporters who dare reveal information the government doesn't like run the risk of jail sentences for disclosing "state secrets."

Moreover, since Hong Kong operates under the "one country, two systems" principal that Deng Xiaoping laid down when he and Britain's Margaret Thatcher agreed to hand the city back to China, health officials from Guangdong and Hong Kong haven't cooperated as closely as they might have.

Officials on both side of the border realize that they need to do more. Over the weekend, Hong Kong Secretary for Health, Welfare & Food Yeoh Eng-kiong got together with Chinese Health Minister Zhang Wenkang to discuss how the health bureaucrats on the mainland and in the SAR could work more closely. According to a Hong Kong government press release, "efforts would be made to provide as much information as possible about infectious disease in the mainland.... Dr. Yeoh said he would also seek to enhance communications with the Guangdong authorities and would discuss further with [them] to understand more about the infectious disease...and to foster closer cooperation in controlling the spread of the disease."

That such cooperation is still a novelty points out one of the long-term dangers to Hong Kong. With the local economy continuing to suffer from its second recession since the 1997 handover, and with Shanghai looming larger and larger as a rival business center, many people -- including this columnist -- see Hong Kong's future tied to the dynamic Pearl River Delta region beyond its border (see BW Online, 3/11/03, "China's Dueling High-Tech Deltas").


  Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Donguang, and other cities in Guangdong province are home to China's most entrepreneurial companies. The mix of their manufacturing muscle and Hong Kong's international outlook is something that Shanghai and its environs will be hard-pressed to match.

Spurring greater integration between Hong Kong and its Pearl River Delta neighbors has become a top priority for local business leaders, who often gripe that the local government has been too slow in bringing the two sides together. Not satisfied with the slow pace of integration, some big thinkers in Hong Kong are saying that it should just get rid of the border once and for all and make itself an integral part of the Delta.

That's too radical for me. I like having a border, which helps ensure that Hong Kong doesn't lose the things that make it unique -- freedom of the press, freedom of religion, rule of law, and other legacies of British rule.

Still, if Hong Kong wants to have a chance to become a real part of one of the world's most dynamic high-tech hubs -- and to be able to fight the next killer bug that makes its way into the city from somewhere in Guangdong -- then the government needs to find a way to work far more closely with its cross-border counterparts. This is a two-sided challenge that poses major complexity.

Einhorn covers technology from Hong Kong for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Online Asia column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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