New Internationalist

Hong Kong

Issue 187

new internationalist
issue 187 - September 1988

COUNTRY PROFILE

Hong Kong
[image, unknown] Once a small fishing community, a haven for pirates and smugglers, Hong Kong became a British possession and vital naval base for the Opium Wars against China in the 1840s. Today the Crown Colony is a buzzing entrepreneurial enclave on China's doorstep.

But the question on everyone's mind is what will happen after 1997 when it is handed back to China. The British government advises calm. After all the agreement they signed in Beijing in 1984 'guarantees' that the colony's life-style will remain unchanged for at least fifty years.

Few Hong Kong Chinese have such faith. It is not that they don't trust the Chinese government, though as almost a quarter of the population are illegal immigrants and refugees from Communist China they have reason enough not to. But they fear that there may be fewer safeguards for their liberty.

Hong Kong is a colony. The governor is appointed by the British Prime Minister without local consultation. Here colonialism marches on, untouched by this century. Expatriates dominate the key jobs and earn far more than local people besides receiving subsidised housing - a major perk when astonishing rents can gobble up half the salary.

Housing is the big gripe of the Hong Kong Chinese. Overcrowding means families are crammed on bunks in tiny two-roomed flats. The government is trying to build more. But, while the number of people living on harbour boats has halved since 1961 and the squatter population has begun to fall, the huge skyscraper estates that have appeared in the New Territories have brought their own social and mental health problems. Triads, the criminal gangs that dominate Hong Kong's underworld, thrive on poverty, drug abuse and frustration.

Hong Kong cannot feed itself but agriculture flourishes, with pig farms, duck lakes and fields of the vegetable delicacy choi sum.

Industry keeps Hong Kong going with textiles the mainstay. Sweat shops, often using illegal immigrants and children who have no legal protection, are the rule and wages are less than a quarter of those paid in Britain.

With Chinese factories opening and Western markets closing down, Hong Kong's long-term industrial future is not too bright. Financial services and trade may compensate, so too may tourism. Nearly four million tourists pass through every year, most just treating Hong Kong as a bargain basement. They miss the bustling Chinese culture, its temples smoking with incense, its festivals, and its street restaurants serving soup made with the flesh of snakes peeled before your eyes, soup that is believed to protect against arthritis and keep out the winter cold. Here Hong Kong is alive, traditional and mercantile - but what will it be in ten years' time?

Adrian Fozzard

Leader: Governor Sir David Wilson

Economy: GNP per capita US $6,230 (US $16,690)
Monetary unit: Hong Kong dollar (tied to US dollar)
Main exports: textiles and clothes, electronics and toys. Also a large re-export trade to and from China.
Main imports: Virtually all its rice, other foods, water and electricity mainly from China.

People: 5.6m but this does not include substantial numbers of illegal immigrants. There are also 13,500 Vietnamese refugees held in appalling conditions in closed camps run by the prison service.

Health: Infant mortality 9 per 1,000 live births, one of the lowest in the world (US 10 per 1,000). The Chinese have a deep concern with health and practise traditional medicine alongside Western methods.

Culture: Nearly all the people are Chinese, most of them Han. The Hakka, mainly farmers, Hoklo and Tanka, boat-dwellers, are the other Chinese groups. There are small Vietnamese and expatriate European communities.
Language: Cantonese and English are the official languages, though Shanghai dialect is occasionally heard.
Religion: Buddhism and Taoism predominate, only 10% of the population are Christian.

 

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Expatriate income a third higher than locals'. Piece-work payment is common.

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Depends on China for water, electricity and food, especially rice.

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Most young women work.

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Colonial rule; absence of political life

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95% male, 81% female. More 18-24 yr olds in tertiary education than in Japan or US.

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Hidden hand controls; ID cards linked to computer.

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76 years, one of the highest in the world
(US 75 years).

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