Hong Kong's Moment of Truth

If any good came of the SARS crisis, it was local officials' rush to openness -- in contrast to the lies initially peddled by China's autocrats

By Mark Clifford

Is there life after SARS? With panic over the disease waning, Hong Kong is doing all it can to stage a post-SARS bounceback. The government has earmarked $130 million for a global ad campaign and splashy entertainment events to lure visitors back. It might work. But what's more interesting to me, and what I believe will ultimately have a greater impact, are the ideas being generated by ordinary citizens.

As scary as it was, SARS united Hong Kong as nothing has in years. Facing the specter of death arouses some primal emotions. Fearing the loss of your livelihood is pretty gut-wrenching, too, which is what the city's entrepreneurial culture lived through from March until May.

Yet, as the economy shuddered to a halt under the influence of the World Health Organization travel advisory, Hong Kong citizens focused on what was most precious to them -- family, friends, and the beautiful, unique city they live in. Now, they're trying to figure out what should happen next.


  The old pre-SARS problems -- unemployment, the environment, an often unsettled relationship with mainland China, and an unpopular local administration -- all remain. But now, everything is colored by SARS and its aftermath. The new climate was the subject of a discussion recently at the Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondent's Club (FCC) that featured Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce CEO Eden Woon and Civic Exchange CEO Christine Loh.

Both Woo and Loh emphasized that the crisis showed Hong Kong's strengths, particularly in comparison with the mainland. Although Hong Kong was initially slow to respond to SARS, once mobilized, the government and the media tried to solve the problem. This was done openly and with a strong sense of civic responsibility -- quite a contrast with the response of China's Communist Party rulers in Beijing, who started with lies before adopting a Draconian top-down approach to attacking SARS.

"The way we treated the disease and the way China treated the disease were very different," says Woon. "This highlighted the difference between China and Hong Kong. When the government here says zero cases, it means zero. I don't know what it means in Shanghai. [The reaction to SARS] has enhanced Hong Kong's middleman role. Five months ago, most of you probably would have wanted to move to Shanghai." Left unsaid: Few people would want to move from Hong Kong to Shanghai today.


  The SARS scare also showed the government had an important role to play -- and still does. For example, the Hong Kong government should ensure that the current emphasis on better hygiene takes root. And it should try to connect its Team Clean cleanup efforts with the broader commitment it has made to sustainable development and environmental improvement. Chief Secretary Donald Tsang, the top official after Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, is responsible for both Team Clean and sustainable development, but he doesn't seem to have connected the two efforts.

Hong Kong citizens must step up, too. And if the eager audience at the FCC was any indication, they will. Indeed, Loh epitomizes the can-do Hong Kong spirit. A former legislative councilor, she grew frustrated with her ability to affect change in what is a largely powerless body. She decided not to run for reelection, instead founding one of Hong Kong's only think tanks, the Civic Exchange. More recently, she and a group of volunteers have set up a Web site to tell Hong Kong's story through private eyes. The innovative result, www.hongkongunmasked.com, is a far cry from a stodgy government site.

Finally, there was consensus that Hong Kong needs to look outward. Woon worried that, although Hong Kong claims to be Asia's World City, it has in fact lost that global focus since the return to Chinese rule in 1997. It's not just that it has become more Chinese but that it has become more local, more southern Cantonese, than Chinese. "It's turning inward, not northward [toward Beijing]," in Woon's view.


  Indeed, just before the FCC event, the government's chief spokesperson on SARS had a press conference that was conducted in Cantonese, except for questions from the foreign press. Cantonese is a local language, quite different from Mandarin, China's official national language. When an NBC reporter flown in from London asked a question, he was brusquely told by the press secretary that the question had already been answered -- in Cantonese!

Another sign of Hong Kong's increasing insularity: Government officials were pressured to wear face masks during press conferences that were shown around the world. Locally, the gesture was seen as a talisman of concern for fellow citizens, an attempt to be socially responsible. But the images scared Westerners. When a local commentator seized on the idea that everyone ought to be wearing face masks, the government felt powerless to resist the suggestions, even though the message transmitted to the rest of the world was that Hong Kong was a plague port.

Plenty of concerns were raised at the FCC event. The chilling effect of Article 23, the controversial antisubversion legislation that threatens Hong Kong's service industry (which accounts for 85% of the economy) remains an issue. Indeed, the SARS epidemic hasn't slowed the progress of the bill, which is backed by Beijing.

Perhaps I'm being too optimistic, but I believe that if Hong Kong handles the post-SARS recovery properly, the city will emerge stronger than ever. After all, as Loh noted: "Once the Hong Kong government knew that it had a problem, it opened up. In China, the instinct was to close down." Now, in a resurgence, Hong Kong can once again effectively illustrate the strengths of openness and inclusion in a global economy.

Clifford is Hong Kong bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his China Journal column every week, only on BW Online. Contact him at china_journal@businessweek.com

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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