Commentary: A Post-SARS Rx for Hong Kong

Its image is badly bruised, and PR moves won't do the trick. The city needs to improve hygiene and create a crisis team

By Mark L. Clifford

What do you do when people shun your city for fear that it's a plague port? How do you bring back the tourists and businesspeople that are the lifeblood of your economy? Those are the challenges Hong Kong must tackle as it struggles to recover from the economic fallout of SARS.

Hong Kong celebrated after the World Health Organization removed its travel advisory for the territory on May 23. That night, jubilant Finance Secretary Antony Leung toasted revelers in the city's Lan Kwai Fong entertainment district. The following Monday, the Hang Seng stock index jumped 2%.

The partying may have been premature. Hong Kong's image is still battered and bruised, and after more than 250 deaths from severe acute respiratory syndrome, the territory faces one of the world's biggest rebranding challenges ever. The government has already earmarked $1.7 billion for an emergency relief package to revive local businesses. And officials are readying a $125 million promotional budget to buff up the city's image and lure visitors back with appearances by headliners such as Bill Clinton and the Rolling Stones. Some say Hong Kong should encourage citizens to ditch the masks -- which the WHO says aren't effective anyway -- that have become emblematic of Hong Kong's state of siege.

Those gestures, though, need to be followed by less symbolic actions, such as a sustained campaign to improve hygiene. Though some streets in Hong Kong are swept twice a day, the city is also home to black holes such as Amoy Gardens, where more than 200 people contracted SARS, many from infected sewage. And Hong Kong's waterfront might be lovely if 40% of the city's sewage weren't dumped into the harbor untreated. Instead, it's home to places like the Causeway Bay typhoon shelter, where human waste bobs in the water among the yachts. Hong Kong made a good start on May 28 with the launch of "Team Clean," a campaign that includes everything from better trash collection to stiffer fines for spitting. But existing hygiene laws are rarely enforced. Unless the city is ready to get tough, the campaign will degenerate into little more than empty sloganeering.

Hong Kong also needs to recognize how much it has changed since the British departed in 1997. Like it or not, the city is part of China. So it needs to stop hiding behind the concept of "one country, two systems" and move to a new level of integration with the mainland. When SARS tore through Guangdong province earlier this year, many in Hong Kong and beyond knew something was amiss, thanks to Hong Kong press reports. But because of bureaucratic inertia -- or perhaps a genuine reluctance to interfere with China's affairs -- the city did nothing. When SARS made its inevitable trek across the border, Hong Kong was woefully unprepared and became the transmission hub to the rest of the world.

Some organizational changes might help clean up Hong Kong's image and boost its ability to react to any new crisis. The government has wisely proposed a Center for Disease Control, for instance. That could help, but unless the group works closely with colleagues in China, it's unlikely to detect a nascent epidemic and prevent its spread. The city should also put together a crisis team. If SARS comes back -- as it has in Toronto -- officials must be ready to act instantly and get their message out. As it is now, the government doesn't have a central spokesman dedicated to SARS. Another idea: a truly independent commission of experts to investigate mistakes made in the SARS crisis and recommend ways to avoid repeating them.

Finally, Hong Kong should think about amending the so-called Article 23 bill. Lost in the SARS scare has been the government's steady progress in pushing through this controversial anti-subversion legislation. As the proposed law stands, if the mainland declares that some act or statement jeopardizes national security, Hong Kong courts will have no choice but to hand out penalties. It's not far-fetched to imagine that this legislation could be used to muzzle Hong Kong's free press in some future emergency. That would be a mistake. Not only does a free press serve Hong Kong well. It will also serve as an early warning system for the mainland in the event of another epidemic -- which most experts view as inevitable.

Hong Kong has long been among Asia's best-run and most cosmopolitan cities, but mismanagement and neglect have taken their toll. The SARS crisis presents the city with an opportunity to fix many of its ills, and if the rehabilitation campaign is done right, Hong Kong could emerge from the crisis stronger than ever.

Regional Editor Clifford covers Asia from Hong Kong.

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