Capitalism, big and small


Lung Wo Road and Connaught Road Central reach for the sky. The ground erupts here with steel and glass and stone buildings that tower 20, 40, 60 storeys over the twilit canyons below that bustle with buses, trams, cars and an endless stream of pedestrians. Here is the commercial heart of the city. In these skyscrapers, the giants of industry, finance and commerce turn over billions of dollars, and smaller players millions, that all add up to the staggering wealth and global influence of these few square kilometres hewn out of a rock washed by the outflow of Pearl River and the tides of South China Sea.

Even after the morning rush abates, the streets still pulsate with energy. The pavement is narrow, and pedestrians develop a sixth sense not to bump into others, as they navigate on an auto pilot, heads down in their smart phones. While as an English legacy cars drive on the left hand side of the road, pedestrians rebel against the foreign cultural implant and reverse the order. Seemingly every few metres an older woman is handing out copies of one of the many free newspapers. Unlike in so many Western cities, many people take one or two. Surprising number of passers-by also stop to buy stick-on hearts from school children selling them for charity. Perhaps in a place where state welfare is virtually non-existent, people are more conscious of the need and the responsibility to take care of others.

Over seven million people call Hong Kong their home, making it the fourth most densely populated place on Earth. And you can feel it. GDP per capita is somewhere around $42 thousand, giving Hong Kong a spot in the global top 20 – and in top 10 if calculated on the basis of purchasing power parity. The averages of course hide big disparities; it is a pretty unequal society. Not everyone after all works as a manager in those proud towers along Lung Wo Road. But most seem to share in the ethic and drive, which make Hong Kong the world’s most competitive and most economically laissez-faire entity according to “The World Competitiveness Yearbook”.

Only a few minutes’ walk away from the urban canyons of business and commerce that run parallel to the waterfront, there is a different Hong Kong. The buildings are older and mostly residential, though scarcity of land means that here too, apartment towers often soar 30 or more storeys; Hong Kong has more high-rises than New York. The streets are narrower, and the lanes even more so. The shops around here don’t sell Armani or Bvlgari or Apple products but labelless clothes and exotic (for a Western interloper) foods stacked up or hanging down in clear plastic bags. But here too, life and business thrive, if not at the frenetic pace and with the great rewards of the top end of town, despite heat and humidity that makes similar climes elsewhere more languid and resigned. Myriads of little shops, eateries, services (“24 hour tailor!”) have their doors open, everywhere cars and loading and unloading boxes, men and women push full trolleys, everyone’s trying to make a buck. I’ve been to many other places around the world which similarly bustle with life and activity, but nowhere does it seem more purposeful and focussed than in Hong Kong.

This, then, are the two faces of capitalism: the uptown and the downtown, the 60th floor office and the ground level hole-in-the-wall shop, the top manager and the street food seller, business big and small. Either cannot really exist without the other – and shouldn’t. There are always far fewer rich than the not so rich, but the not so rich will only tolerate the former if they see that the system gives everyone opportunities and rewards hard work. Sure, some people will always have more of these opportunities than others, and for some hard work brings a penthouse apartment while for others merely food on the table, but as long as the system allows most people to try and to succeed, to be masters of own destiny, to build something for themselves – to do better – they will tolerate disparities and inequalities.

Entrepreneurial spirit has been in decline in Hong Kong, from the peak in the 1980s, as measured by the proportion of the population who are employers. Many factors are blamed, including demography, demand for skilled workers by bigger businesses, or the aftereffects of the 1997 Asian economic crisis. It is also possible, though less openly mentioned in Hong Kong, that the reunification with China has had a slight chilling effect, perhaps by precipitating migration overseas of many business-minded members of the middle class. But there is another, somewhat counter-intuitive theory: the mainland communists being seen as being particularly pro-market, many younger people rebel against Beijing’s influence by embracing more statist outlook. Thus the anti-communist attitude ends up ironically being somewhat anti-capitalist one too.

To be fair to Hong Kong, the decline of entrepreneurial spirit has not been a phenomenon restricted to the Pearl River delta. It has also been noticeable in countries like the United States and Australia, where it cannot be blamed on Chinese take-over. Larger social forces are perhaps at play. In any case, capitalism will go on, even if the battle of ideas is never won. Just as the Marxist theories about the scientifically inevitable triumph of socialism were a historical mirage, so there is no Hegelian end of history in sight. Nowhere has this been clearer than here in Hong Kong.