This commentary was written in 2012. Some of the information contained in the story may be outdated.
It’s difficult to leave China without being impacted and impressed by the challenges and possibilities of the country’s enormous population. On my itinerary, Hong Kong followed Shanghai and, in many ways, it was interesting to see the differences and similarities between those two cities.
Hong Kong has over 7 million people living on approx. 1,100 sqkm (422 sqmiles). 95% of the city’s population is Chinese. The city’s size is about 1/6 the size of Shanghai, so you can imagine how close together people live here. Designated a “Special Administrative Region” of China, it does not share the same laws with the rest of China. For example, the right of free expression and the right to demonstrate are still part of the city’s constitution – for another 35 years, that is. Hong Kong also does not have to adhere to the 1 child policy (1 birth policy – to be more precise) and does not have capital punishment. In contrast, China executed 4,000 prisoners last year (7,000 the year before). When Hong Kong was returned from British rule to China in 1997, the Chinese government agreed to keep the city’s special status for 50 years. After that period, Hong Kong will be amalgamated with the rest of China.
Here are some interesting facts about Hong Kong:
HK has 262 outlying islands, 95% of which are uninhabited
The average apartment in HK is between 26 sqm and 46 sqm (280 sqft and 500 sqft) in size. A typical apartment building is 50 – 60 stories high.
An apartment costs on the average US$ 10,000.- to US$ 13,000.- per sqm (US$ 1,000.- to US$ 1,300.- per sqft). Approx. 50% of the apartments are owned, 30% are government subsidized housing and the rest is rented. I saw a 51 sqm (550 sqft) apartment advertised for US$ 606,000.- That appears to be common.
Average monthly income is between US$ 533.- and US$ 800.- Minimum wage is US$ 3.73/hr.
Regular gas is US$ 2.20 per ltr (US$ 8.32/gal). Most cars on the road are company cars or private cars of the wealthy. Car ownership is discouraged because of congestion. Car buyers pay a 90% import tax. A second license plate for Mainland China is required if you wish to drive to Mainland China. Cost: US$ 100,000.-
The majority of young people are focussed on making money. They marry late (average age of marriage is 32 for men and 28 for women) and have few children (1.6 children per family). In order to replace the dying in Hong Kong, a birthrate of 2.1 children per family is needed. The government is providing incentives for couples to have 3 – 4 children. My question: where are they going to live? In 400 sqft apartments?
Much of Hong Kong’s population growth comes through immigration from Mainland China. To accommodate growth on a limited land base, the city has had to claim land from the sea. Large portions of the city are now located on fill that has been deposited in the harbour. A common sentiment is: “Stop filling in the harbour, otherwise we won’t have a port left.” Even the tallest building in Hong Kong (the 4. tallest building in the world), the ICC Tower with its 484 m (1,588 ft) height and 118 stories, was built on fill in 2010.
Over 100,000 students graduate from high school every year, but only 1/3 can be accepted at local universities. The rest try to study in the USA. The Hong Kong education system is currently changing over to the North American system of 6 years elementary school, 6 years high school and 4 years of university.
Hong Kong welcomes 35 million tourists each year, 55% of which are from Mainland China. Most tourists come to shop. The S.A.R.S. epidemic in 2003 cost 1,700 lives in Hong Kong. Many people panicked, stayed home and didn’t go to work. As a result the economy suffered and tourism dropped sharply. Only now are tourists starting to come back.
There are some remarkable construction projects under way in Hong Kong. Planning is under way for the airport to build a third runway. Only 14 years after the airport was opened, it is overcrowded already and needs to expand in order to remain competitive. Also, a high-speed passenger train service is under construction between Hong Kong and Beijing. Air travel between the two cities takes 2 – 3 hours. The current train needs 28 hours while the new high-speed bullet train will be able to cover the distance in just under 8 hours. The project should be completed in 3 to 5 years.
Disneyland opened in Hong Kong several years ago and has been profitable for the last two years. The theme park took 5 years to build and was initiated as a 49/51% partnership between Disney and the Chinese government. China owns the 51% portion. Now Disney is coming to Shanghai.
Hong Kong is building a new hospital on Landau Island but won’t be able to open due to the lack of nurses. Universities have increased spaces to train more health care professionals and the salaries for nurses have increased to US$2,700.- When ill, most people in Hong Kong go to a western Dr. first for relief of symptoms, then they visit a Chinese Dr. for prescriptions of traditional herbal medicine and a cure for their ailment.
Interest in religion and spirituality has subsided during the last 2 or 3 decades. There used to be over 50 Buddhist monks during the 1960s, now there are 25 in all of Hong Kong. Young people in particular face a dilemma with age-old customs and traditions: how to make time for spiritual practice, family time and observance of cultural traditions while staying competitive in a career environment. I have heard from a number of people about their inner conflict. On the one hand they feel pressure from parents and grandparents to observe the customs of their ethnic group, on the other hand they simply do not have the time. One such custom is to pack up the family BBQ, head for the cemetery and make food offerings to the ancestors at their gravesite.
Do you believe there are circumstances under which a totalitarian government is preferable to a democratic system? I have thought about that question a lot during our journey through these highly populated places. If China actually turned towards democracy, do we as westerners really think that peace could be maintained in this country with all its ethnic minorities? Wouldn’t it face the same fate as the Soviet Union in 1989 or many countries on the African continent at the end of colonial rule? Do you think China could feed its people if suddenly political leaders were to be elected for political office and had to woo public opinion instead of being appointed and able to make unpopular but necessary decisions? I can just see it: “Vote for me and I will do away with the one-child policy. As my first act in office I will make sure that every family in China can have as many children as they desire.” Or “If elected, I will work towards the goal of everybody in the country being able to afford their own car.” That would be just as stupid and unwise as Newt Gingrich’s promise of $2.50/gal gas.
China’s 1,700 km (1,100 mile) long Grand Canal from Shanghai to Beijing was dug by hand by millions of peasant workers. 33 times as long as the Panama Canal, it is a perfect example of the kind of projects the Chinese are capable to completing. Enormous manpower also built the 6,000 km (4,000 mile) long Great Wall and, more recently, the Three Gorges Hydroelectric Dam. All of the above required huge sacrifices on part of the population and without much consideration for the environment or human life.
How can we westerners, with our obsession about individualism, our addiction to deficit budgets, our concern about human rights and our anxiety around environmental degradation, ever compete economically with China?