Hong Kong is an economic weathervane
I shall be moderating a conference in Hong Kong ahead of the Chinese New Year. And, as ever with this remarkable part of the world, the only thing that I can be quite certain of is that I'll be surprised by what I find.
I have only been back to Hong Kong twice since the British ceded possession of their former colony back to mainland China, and the experience just gets richer. On both post-1997 trips I expected to find this unique place more noticeably Chinese. Instead, the place, already frenetic, has been even more intense. The British colonial flavour is still there, and, if anything, more deeply than before.
Visiting modern Hong Kong with its quaint colonial past is like watching a digitally re-mastered movie – it's the same, but better.
And it's an important place for any commentator on international business. I see Hong Kong as a weather-vane for the global economy. It compares only to New York in terms of is vibrancy and internationalism (Shanghai is unbelievably dynamic, but not so international, Anglo-French influences notwithstanding. Mumbai is not quite up to either city in terms of vivacity or a truly multi-cultural business ethic).
I love Hong Kong's contradictions. It is, incidentally, one of the few places in Asia where I avoid the Shangri-La hotels (they are easily the best business hotels in Asia, in my opinion – but the Hong Kong Mandarin and Peninsula are two of the greatest venues on the planet).
So, with its Chinese nationality and its defiantly British place names (Sutherland Road, Jardine's Lookout, etc) and its iconic business significance, what are my expectations this time?
Well, I have to say I'm expecting less economic activity and an air of depression. My fellow commentators on the Emirates Business website have hardly been effusive in their optimism, and, surely, even the indefatigable Hong Kong Chinese are going to retreat into their shells.
But perhaps my expectations are part of the problem we are all facing, and not the solution. One of the men I most admire in business is Sir David Tang, who has built a remarkable empire of leisure and clothing and other interests. I'm not one to spend money on fancy clothes, but I have to say that the eye-wateringly expensive Shanghai Tang cashmere coat I acquired in Hong Kong on my last visit remains one of the few material things, other than a very modest collection of rare books, that I treasure.
So when Sir David says that pessimism is wrong and bad, I for one feel obliged to take notice: "What we all need to do is to sit down and calm down and go back to basics. And most important of all, shed our sense of pessimism. It is only with a sense of optimism, preferably accompanied by a sense of energy and laughter, that we will be able to pick ourselves up... jobs measure feelings more accurately than the Richter scale measures earthquakes."
Maybe I'm just being too much of a pessimist after all. Although I believe markets are more a function of sentiment than ever before, I'll try a more empirical test. I'll just look at the levels of economic activity, the spend in the retail outlets, and I'll try to set my own barometer of optimism or pessimism accordingly. One thing's for sure, I expect Sir David to fare better than most in the next few months.
- Martin Baker is a journalist, author and commentator on international business affairs
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