Not The South China Morning Post


From moldboard plough to mobile phone - July 2000
From moldboard plough to mobile phone´┐Ż

Li Ka-shing was recently given a knighthood by the Queen. A bit superfluous, really. The fact is, old KS is already a baron.

Here in Hong Kong, it is 1215. In a meadow, Lord Sun Hung Kai, Earl Henderson and Duke Sino, look on approvingly as Baron Li leans over the shoulder of King Tung, showing him where to sign the great charter. The charter guarantees the barons' ancient rights and liberties - specifically, the freedom to go on skimming off between 3 and 6 percent of the Kingdom's GDP courtesy of a government policy of maintaining an artificially short supply of land for development.

Medieval European serfdom was not, as some people think, a form of slavery. It was a social contract under which nearly everyone gained something.  And that's just the way it is here in feudal Hong Kong. The serfs get a hovel to live in and crummy but affordable schools and hospitals. As a result, they are dependent and docile and think mainly about the coming horse-racing tournament or the latest hits from troubadours Andy Lau and Leon Lai. Even if they had somewhere else to go, the serfs wouldn't run away. Meanwhile, the reeves, sheriffs and bailiffs who run everything day by day, get high salaries, low taxes and the dream of becoming property owners.

Baron Li and his friends get all the rest, either through the property development scam, or through monopolizing other forms of trade. QQ, for example, has little or no choice but to buy his electricity, groceries, electronic goods and personal care products (toothpaste, condoms, etc) from Baron Li, whose domain includes HK Electric, Park n Shop, Fortress and Watsons. If Baron Li owned San Miguel, he would be getting more out of mead-guzzling QQ than the Government (as it happens, the brewery is part of the fiefdom of a dusky Moorish prince from the Philippines).

Meanwhile, not only does King Tung accommodate his grasping barons; he himself is a vassal, having to appease the Holy Father, Jiang Zemin, or risk excommunication and eternal damnation. The only bright spot is that his court jester comes up with some good lines for the King. Like the one about how he wants to make Hong Kong a world class city.

As we all know, the descendents of the guys at Runnymede in 1215 went on to do great things. They stopped speaking French, for a start. Then they developed rule of law and popular government, and they founded great centres of commerce and culture like London and New York - cities with real capitalist economies and real democratic government. Cities that King Tung's Hong Kong will never equal unless it scraps this feudal economic and political system. And that's about as likely as QQ losing his "droit du seigneur" in certain Wanchai hostelries.  Oyez,  oyez.