Friday, November 26, 2010

In Love with Capitalism

CHANGECHANGE, Hong Kong, 2010

Hong Kong makes you want to love capitalism. There is an extraordinary vibrancy about it. Nearly seven million people crammed into high-rises that seem to go up forever, spilling onto the sidewalks, zooming around in red Japanese-made taxis, crowding into the MTR trains, eating yum cha in cavernous diners where dim sum is served straight from the kitchen with an impersonal, cool efficiency.

Everything is organized for maximum throughput. Physical barriers and signs are in place to channel those huge crowds where they need to go. From the time our plane's wheels touched down on the tarmac of Hong Kong International to sitting down on the bed in the minuscule room of Hotel Benito in Kowloon took less than an hour and a half. That was just the beginning.

The streets are buzzing with activity, day and night. Since most Hong Kong apartments are about as tiny as our hotel room—I hear many don't even have a kitchen—people spend their time up and about, practicing tai chi or playing mah jong in the parks, socializing and eating in the yum cha spots, shopping, or hanging out by the waterline admiring the surreal, baroque towers of the Wan Chai and Central skylines, where the HSBC and Bank of China towers wage silent feng shui war on each other. And working. Always, working. Anything you need, someone's there to provide it, at consistently high value for money, and at any price point you're willing to pay. A two-and-a-half euro noodle soup with won tons is delicious and wholesome, and I have no doubt that the chic restaurants in Central are world-class—as is the health care, if you're able to pay for it.

Hong Kong is remarkably clean considering the sheer density of people there. The streets are well-swept, the parks impeccably landscaped and gardened, the neon signs—oh! the neon signs!—are never on the blink. The water is drinkable and tastes clean too. There is haze, but no yellow pall of smog, despite the density of the traffic. It is relatively safe, and, I hear, relatively free of corruption. Four different banks issue currency, pegged to the decaying but still mighty American dollar. Hong Kong gives every impression of a well-run, well-policed state, where the overriding concern for every decision is "Is it good for business?"

All this, Hong Kong manages with an absurdly low rate of taxation. Of course, there are no military expenditures—formerly the Queen of England took care of that; now the People's Liberation Army. There isn't any social security either, but then again there's practically no unemployment, so if you're willing and healthy enough to work, you'll do fine. If not? I have no idea.

Nor is Hong Kong overly burdened with democracy. The last British governor enacted some reforms just before handing the place over to Beijing, at a time when it no longer mattered to them but caused the maximum inconvenience to the island city's new masters, but even under the Fundamental Law, the governing apparatus is dominated by appointed rather than elected officials. There is freedom of expression—I saw Falun Gong protesters with graphic pictures of their followers allegedly being harvested for organs at the orders of Jiang Zemin—but the actual government is dominated by functionaries that are appointed rather than elected.

Pure capitalism, with a dash of authoritarianism to back it up, and to keep the infrastructure ticking along. One kind of utopia, that.

Then, you start to notice a few other things.

There are those shark fins in the shop windows, and the elephant tusks, and the body parts of any number of near-extinct animals in traditional Chinese pharmacies. There is the historical fact that Hong Kong's fortunes were made by the greatest drug traders in history: the British pushing opium on the decaying Chinese empire, backed up by gunboats and a brief occupation of the capital.

The capitalism isn't all that pure, either. Since the dearth of land has driven property values into the stratosphere, the Hong Kong government has stepped in: two-thirds of the population lives in subsidized municipal housing, making the city government the world's largest landlord.

Capitalism looks great if you only see the winners. Hong Kong would not be what it is without the losers. They are somewhere else, out of sight and out of mind. Just like with us; only there, the contrasts are more striking because everything is compressed into such a tiny space.

It is a beautiful, vibrant place. Painfully, manically alive, with a thrumming pulse and an edge of cruelty. I want to go there again.

2 comments:

  1. Haven't been yet. I like the "if you only see the winners" observation.

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  2. Definitely worth a visit! I stayed there for a week and a half a couple of years ago and I second most of what Petteri wrote.

    From a Finnish perspective, the place simply feels saturated with wealth. Much more so than other major cities I have visited. I remember seeing an advertisment for some slightly more festive occasion at the Peninsula hotel (near the ferry on Kowloon side) where a single dinner ticket cost way over 1000 euros.

    Just going around and watching at stuff is amazing. Also, if you are loaded, this a nice place to spend your pennies. But for me, just being there was more than enough.

    Also the choice of eateries is very very good. There are cheap hotels, flying there is super easy and doesn't cost too much either. Go there!

    PS. After a few days, you might want to escape the glass and steel cathedrals for a short visit to more tranquil locations avaible in abundance and easily accessible with the all-access transport card.

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