What is Forbes magazine for? For most people, it’s something to flick through while waiting to see the dentist. Its breezy, glossy Cosmo-style vacuity (Ten Tips for Spring Cleaning Your Career) triggers an instant, Zen-like clearance of thoughts from the brain, while the never-ending lists of top billionaires and zippy tech start-ups provide that all-important inner numbness (mesmerize yourself with America’s Most Popular Car Colors and a root canal is nothing).
Compared with his closet-gay/biker/socialite father Malcolm of Capitalist Tool Boeing 727 fame, proprietor Steve Forbes perhaps seems a little colourless. His editorial stance is undoubting, inherited-wealth conservative. Rather than take the publication to court, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew writes an opinion column for it. Immaculately coiffured Indian businessmen you’ve never heard of get star treatment – in the Asian edition at least – while the likes of Gordon G Chang monitor China’s coming demise.
Coverage of the Big Lychee is usually pretty thin, consisting of rankings of tycoons and glowing reports of obscure European luxury brands setting up shop in the city. So a non-celebrity article on one of our less renowned economic sectors raises an eyebrow. Especially when it is titled Why Hong Kong is China’s New Tech Hub.
For many right-thinking people, the idea that this city can be a tech (as in research) hub is laughable – it’s about as likely as the place becoming a sporting powerhouse, a creative and cultural centre or a green, zero-emissions paradise. And, because our government has indeed on occasions announced plans to miraculously turn us into Asia’s tech (sports/creative/cultural/green) capital, the idea is also rather distasteful, even disturbing. Tung Chee-hwa was right? Economic planning by bureaucrats works?
Looking through the piece, it seems we are talking about a small but real Hong Kong success story. This is not about hundreds of geeky code-writers in Beijing patching together Microsoft’s latest user-loathing, giant hairball of an Office upgrade. Nor is it about dozens of fresh graduates in Shenzhen reverse-engineering and improving gizmos that the original inventors still haven’t finished. It’s about pairs and threes of local whiz-kids working out ways to make – this is key – a fast buck from (I would guess) silly-but-clever apps for iPhones and the like.
So we can breathe a sigh of relief. Grandiose government visions, science parks and multi-billion dollar funds have had nothing to do with it. It’s a bunch of spiky-haired kids who are too shy to be property agents devising inane and profitable downloads for Asia’s millions of easily amused mobile device users.
The Forbes agenda is to underline how the evil Reds on the Mainland are at a disadvantage compared with the freedom-loving, market-oriented Hongkongers. And the list (Eight Ways You Can Wipe the Floor with the Commies in their own Backyard) looks pretty impressive. Mainland China is poor, censored, monopolized, bureaucratic, state-run and hates foreigners; Hong Kong, on the other hand, is just seriously cool. Perfectly valid points, no doubt.
And then Forbes hits an interesting little nail on the head: the Big Lychee’s officials don’t draw attention to these advantages. Out of fearful, obsequious pragmatism (“deference”) they don’t advertise Hong Kong as the bit of China where there is no censorship, thus no persecution for resisting censorship, no favouritism for state companies, no weird legal decisions to undercut foreigners, plus all the YouTube and Facebook you could ever want, and you can incorporate in a day. Unlike you-know-where.
Our local leaders are silent on this. They just sit there awkwardly, too patriotic to say why we’re better, preferring instead to unnerve us all with fatalistic blather about how our only chance is integration and cooperation and partnership, and getting excited only at the prospect of a mention in the next Five Year Plan.
Not a totally new point (it’s all part of the post-colonial pre-emptive cringe), but interesting enough to keep me away from Forbes next time I am in the dentist’s waiting room.