The search for greatness

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 November, 2009, 12:00am

Mao Zedong once said that 'there's a time when it has to rain, and there's a time when a woman has to get married'. There is no reason why people in Hong Kong should be upset by, or shocked at, news that Disney will be developing a much larger theme park in Shanghai.

In commercial terms, it's no surprise that Disney, despite its fairy-tale image, is going after profit. Setting up business in Shanghai, one of the fastest-growing cities on the mainland - and the wealthiest - is but a natural course of action to get closer to where the market is. Any why shouldn't Shanghai compete with Hong Kong?

Hong Kong has been too obsessed with Shanghai catching up ever since the reunification with China. Many people here were unhappy when former premier Zhu Rongji compared Hong Kong to Toronto instead of New York.

But, rather than expressing outrage and feeling slighted, Hongkongers should ask themselves: how should Hong Kong behave or act if it really does aspire to be the New York of China?

This question is not adequately addressed by the city's status as a leading global financial hub, after New York and London. It is also a cultural question. New York, as the greatest melting pot of America, symbolises the spirit of liberty and entrepreneurialism.

If people are worried about being outcompeted by Shanghai, they have to ask what comparative advantage Shanghai enjoys over Hong Kong and why Hong Kong has lost its edge. There is no use just moaning and groaning.

So, what does Hong Kong symbolise as part of the Chinese nation? Because of the unique features of its journey of reunification, there has been a lot of talk about the city being different and separate from the mainland under the 'one country two systems' framework.

That's fine, as long as Hong Kong recognises the importance of reconnecting with national life and finding a niche that enables it to play a part in taking the new China forward, just as other great mainland cities all seek to do.

Hong Kong, as a former British colony, has its East-West hybridity, which interests the world, but it cannot live forever on its pre-1997 legacy. It has to increasingly ask what difference it is making to China and the world, and how it can leverage national policies, as one of China's metropolises should.

Hong Kong has been too economically minded when it comes to the national dimension. While it welcomes millions of mainland tourists to spend their money here, it is otherwise quite sceptical of getting too close to the mainland, something that compatriots across the border find difficult to comprehend. The attraction to the mainland should not be confined to material issues.

Hong Kong, as a city of shopping and eating - with tourist destinations like Ocean Park and Disneyland - can undoubtedly attract a lot of 'tourism dollars' - but it is still the soul of its modernity and diversity (and the values underpinning it) that makes the city distinct and lively.

Global cities like New York, Paris and London do not need to identify and build new tourist attractions all the time. They don't need to be bothered by Hong Kong (or Shanghai) having a Disney theme park.

As great cities, it is their overall ambience, and cultural and humanistic content, that draw visitors from across the world, many of whom desire to breathe their air (not necessarily much less polluted than ours) and be part of their vibrancy every now and then.

So, where does Hong Kong's greatness lie, for China and the world? Why would mainland and international visitors feel they were missing out by not visiting Hong Kong? Surely, it is not ultimately about a Disneyland theme park, or international luxury brand shops.

The earlier Hongkongers find a good answer, the earlier they can get away from that unnecessary narcissist self-doubt which has been haunting them since 1997 and doing more harm than good to the city's search for a new identity.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think tank