Two little rays of sunshine pierce the angst-ridden gloom over the Big Lychee this morning, in the form of online magazine articles. Caveats are in order: both these American publications have fine pedigrees in their own way, but in our things-aren’t-what-they-used-to-be times, neither arguably has quite the cachet it had in the glory days of print; and neither has any particular expertise or insight where Hong Kong is concerned. But why be fussy when we could use some optimism?
First, Atlantic magazine freaks out in amazement at how wonderful our mass-transit system is. Obviously, a comparison between the late-20th-Century MTR and the Victorian-era New York subway is hardly fair. In a hundred years’ time, our descendants might be gasping in admiration at the slick, Star Trek-type teleportation system in Vientiane, Laos, while the Island, West Rail and Kwun Tong lines collapse into piles of rust. But the writer looks beyond path dependence and examines how the MTR is financed and in turn how it fits into the overall city and society.
To many of us, the MTR’s method of subsidy is silly and colonial. Rather than just pay for the infrastructure out of ordinary revenue as with the police or schools, 1970s bureaucrats decided to finance it by granting the rail system real-estate development rights around its stations. Officials could therefore pretend they weren’t spending taxpayers’ money on it, which made them feel good. It’s the same policy and logic that rejoices in ‘low taxes’ while forcing middle-class families to spend half their income on housing.
Atlantic flips our cynicism on its head. It’s not a lame quasi-subsidy – it’s value capture, a much-discussed but often somewhat theoretical way to finance transit systems. Highly suited as it is to high-density, low-car-usage Hong Kong, it suddenly looks hugely respectable. Cool, even. Why, with the MTR part-owning all these ghastly malls full of identical tacky outlets, we can even feel good about the Mainland locust-tourists, for they are inadvertently paying for our next train ride.
The positive mood continues over at Forbes, best known for its tiresome lists of ‘100 Richest Whatevers’ and for a slightly Tatler-esque Asian edition that (last time I checked) tends towards unseemly shoe-shining of regional tycoons and despots. The writer (a former Mormon missionary to the Amazon) gushes that Hong Kong will show the Mainland the way to enlightenment and world leadership. It would be easy to smile good-naturedly and move on, until we see that he is drawing on remarks by Professor Gordon Redding – whose work will probably be known to anyone who has spent time in the often-murky, sometimes-scary and hilariously unpredictable world of the Chinese family-run firm.
Redding is saying that the Mainland’s business culture of mistrust beyond established networks has to change into a more Western/Hong Kong ethos of free and fair exchange among strangers. He does not quite say that rule of man and the one-party state need to give way to independent institutions and pluralism (he was speaking at an event run by the very-establishment Business and Professionals Federation). But he does seem to suggest that China’s rise to developed status requires the adoption of concepts that do not have the phrase ‘with Chinese characteristics’ tacked onto them. And Hong Kong, he says soberly and straight-faced, provides the ideal, face-saving way to do it.
Sounds good. Well, I feel better about the MTR’s subsidy system, anyway.