Time to rip up book on facts of life in SAR

After economic and social devastation caused first by those rebellious democrats and then by Covid-19, there are signs that at long last new flesh is being put on Hong Kong’s old bones. After all, the SAR has no choice but to adjust to its new future as a key piece of the Greater Bay jigsaw.

Before long the mega-metropolis of 70 million people will rank as one of the richest places, if not the richest, on the planet and the gateway to a new digital age.

One sign of the social adjustment under way is that more of Hong Kong’s youngsters are choosing to be educated in the mainland. They, and no doubt their parents, foresee that Hong Kong’s future is irrevocably dependent on its role as part of China’s vast economy.

There is also much talk in business, academic and government circles – in Hong Kong and in the mainland – about how the SAR’s economy can be resuscitated.

I think it is now widely accepted that since 1997, Hong Kong has rested too much on its 20th-century laurels. There was a failure to adapt to a fast-changing world and the digital age.

The urgent need now is to revamp and reinvigorate the economy so that prosperity is shared more equally. Wealth, aspiration, opportunity – they all need to be leveled up. Only in that way can happiness for all be guaranteed.

A local billionaire who is prepared to talk the truth about these facts of Hong Kong life is Cheah Cheng Hye, a cofounder of Value Partners and non-executive director of HKEx. Over the past few months he has been putting his pen to paper with a series of articles calling for a more inclusive Hong Kong that is fairer and, as he puts it, “happier.” I think his observations and aspirations are bang on.

His opinion is that the form of laissez-faire capitalism that has characterized Hong Kong until now is beyond its sell-by date. What he calls “the blind pursuit of corporate profits,” which worked well in the past, has become its own worst enemy.

High profits no longer deliver happiness for all. Indeed, they often do the opposite and to restore the balance society needs to be leveled up and made more inclusive. “The priority in government policy has to be the happiness of people,” is how Cheah neatly puts it.

In practice what he suggests is that the government reach for the money in its vast reserves. Even after the costs of Covid-19, Hong Kong still has loads of cash – a hoard that belongs to the people but is cared for by the government on the their behalf. Now, he says, it’s time to use the people’s money to help those same people by leveling up society and spreading happiness more equally.

He calls for an evolution of the capitalist system so it benefits not just shareholders but also employees and society at large. And he wants monopolies broken up and anti-competitive behavior eradicated.

The list of changes he wants to see is a long one: much more housing even if that means taking land from country parks, reclamation or even leasing land from Guangdong, higher taxes, a sales tax, a basic income for all, education reforms, borrowing good ideas on public housing from Singapore, universal suffrage to elect the chief executive and perhaps most important of all the promotion of a new generation of civil servants who will discard moth-eaten, colonial-era policies.

Cheah has also taken on a role as cheerleader for Hong Kong.

A reformed Hong Kong, he believes, has a brilliant future, with the tantalizing prospect that its SAR status will be renewed in 2047.

But, he warns, a failure to reform and re-energize the economy will make a 2047 renewal far less likely.

Of course, some of Hong Kong’s incumbent vested interests will no doubt be aghast at what Cheah suggests.

Yet I also know from conversations I’ve had that some of the SAR’s richest families are ready to acknowledge that their glory days are past. The world has changed and they will have to embrace reform.

Cheng Huan is an author and a senior counsel who practices in Hong Kong

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