• Sun
  • Dec 21, 2014
  • Updated: 3:01am
Monitor
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 March, 2014, 12:25am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 March, 2014, 12:25am

After nine years, it's time to leave the stage

In his final column, Tom Holland laments the fact that despite dramatic growth on the mainland, many of its problems have become even worse

Gentle readers, this will be my last daily column for the South China Morning Post.

After nine years, 2,000 articles, and 1.5 million words - more even than Marcel Proust's seven-volume A la recherche du temps perdu - it is time for me to move on and do something else.

It's been a fascinating and eventful nine years to work as a business columnist. But glancing back, it is perhaps less surprising how things have changed than how much they have remained the same.

An awful lot has changed, of course. When I joined the South China Morning Post in February 2005, Tung Chee-hwa was still the chief executive of Hong Kong's government, and the city was struggling to emerge from a six-year-long deflationary slump.

Property prices were down by half from their level at the time of the 1997 handover. The benchmark Hang Seng Index of blue-chip stocks was 25 per cent below its March 2000 peak, and unemployment was at 6.7 per cent, double its long-term average.

Within weeks the hapless Tung had stepped down, and today, two chiefs later, those hard times seem a distant memory.

In the years since, Hong Kong's economy has grown by more than 40 per cent in real terms. The property market has soared 130 per cent. The Hang Seng Index is up 63 per cent, and unemployment has fallen by half.

However, the changes in Hong Kong pale beside those on the mainland, where many of the cities have altered almost beyond recognition.

Nine years ago, China's economy ranked seventh in the world; smaller than Italy's. Today it is second only to the United States and is widely tipped to reach number one by the end of the decade.

Back then an estimated 94 million mainlanders had access to the internet. Today the number is well over 600 million. Then there were just 11 million private cars on China's roads. Today there are nearly 100 million.

In 2005 the yuan was still pegged to the US dollar. Now it has strengthened by more than a third and is even touted as a likely replacement for the US currency in world markets.

Clearly there have been enormous changes. Yet a look back at some of those early columns quickly shows that many of the things people were concerned about then remain worries today.

Back in 2005, government officials were sounding the alarm about a structural deficit in Hong Kong's public finances. The city's fiscal position was unsustainable, they warned, arguing the only way to balance the books would be to impose a goods and services tax.

Public opinion rightly rejected such an unnecessary and regressive tax proposal. And today, with the government sitting on accumulated surpluses worth nearly four years of government spending, Hong Kong's public finances are stronger than ever.

Yet officials continue to warn about the emergence of a structural deficit and to call for new taxes to raise even more revenue.

Nine years ago Hongkongers were getting increasingly resentful at the way closed business cartels, often run by property tycoons, were exerting their control over almost every sector of the city's economy.

Today, despite the introduction in 2012 of Hong Kong's first competition law, the cartels still reign supreme, and the tycoons' grip on the economy is as tight as ever.

In 2005 Hongkongers were also worried about the severity of local pollution and angry at the government's failure to do anything to clear the air.

("We have the most environmentally-friendly place for people, for executives, for Hong Kong people to live", claimed then-chief executive Donald Tsang in 2006.)

Today, pollution levels are worse than ever. And while the government has pledged action, whether its promised measures will have any visible effect remains to be seen.

On the mainland, too, the concerns are the same today as they were nine years ago, only now they are magnified tenfold. Pollution, corruption, wasteful investment, the failure of the state to embrace free competition, the fragility of the banking sector, and the weakness of the stock market all rated multiple columns then, just as now.

In short, it almost feels as if nothing has changed at all.

That's not true, of course, but it is the job of a newspaper columnist to highlight official failings and uncomfortable risks, especially in an environment where business chiefs and officials escape almost all public accountability.

I've enjoyed it enormously. And, no, since some are bound to wonder, I've never come under editorial pressure to tone down my stance. And, no, I haven't been pushed out. I just want to move on before I get stale.

Finally, a huge thank you to all the readers who have written in over the years to chastise, correct or encourage me. When this column has been at its best, it was all down to you.

tom.holland@scmp.com

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This article is now closed to comments

impala
While I have disagreed as many times as agreed with Holland, his columns were always a highlight of reading this newspaper. And that is certainly not only because many articles in the rest of the paper are of abominable quality, but first and foremost because of his insightful and clear-headed writing.

So gratitude to him, and good luck.

Sadly, we readers are left with even fewer good reasons to subscribe to the SCMP.
anthonygmail
What, Tom's leaving? This column is one of the reasons I'm still reading SCMP!
.
Best wishes for the future, Tom.
goncalo
I have been a faithful reader and will miss your provocative articles, without which the SCMP will certainly be poorer. Whish you all the best!
honkiepanky
Tom, for nearly a decade your column has been the first thing I read every morning. No other writer active in Hong Kong comes close to your abilities as an analyst or journalist. It is understandable that doing the same job for nine years has gotten old, but you will be missed. Best of luck in your next venture!
quinlan
Even sitting in far-away Sydney, your columns have given me some insight into how HK was faring. This has not necessarily been the case with other sections of this declining newspaper.
Best wishes to you for the future - your expertise will be missed.
howyadoin
We'll miss you tremendously, Tom. Thank you for all your enlightening words and for being the voice of reason.
John Adams
Tom.... you are leaving the SCMP ? !!!!!!!!!!
.
Your voice was of the few teaching sanity in a world of increasing financial madness.
Please don't go - you are 50% of the reason I read the SCMP on-line.
.
(Please at least leave an email address where we can contact you in the future )
rusembbeijing
Mr. Holland,
Thank you for everything you wrote here for us. We`ll miss your articles.
johnyuan
It is most disappointing when TH’s column is getting more interesting that he is leaving SCMP. Not just my personal lost perhaps.
.
I will not think TH has been just a business columnist. He is more. He is also an economist of which he inevitably has been keeping an eye on politics.
.
So with best regards to your future.
John Adams
Did ever a leaving columnist get such an accolade ?
We will miss you Tom !
Where are you going next ?
I hope to Goodness you are staying in HK and/or China so we still will have your "voice " of financial sanity

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