PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 March, 2013, 5:02am

The no-frills Hong Kong dream

Michael Chugani explains the pragmatism that sets apart Hong Kong's get-rich-quick dream from the lofty Chinese and American versions


Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London. Aside from being a South China Morning Post columnist he also hosts TVB’s Straight Talk show, a radio show and writes for two Chinese-language publications. He has published a number of books on politics which contain English and Chinese versions.

We now have two dreams. For much of our recent history, the American dream dominated. What began as a broad dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness through hard work evolved over time into a more specific American dream of freedom, equality, opportunity and consumerism. Immigrants have, for decades, flocked to the US to pursue this dream of achieving a happy, middle-class life defined by a nice suburban house, a TV in every room, a car, maybe two, and a comfortable retirement.

But, now, President Xi Jinping has sprung another dream on us - the Chinese dream. He wasn't very specific, speaking only of a great China renaissance that would spawn a Chinese dream of a better life for the people, anchored by socialism with Chinese characteristics. Xi was equally unspecific about the role of Hong Kong and Macau, stressing only the need for us to co-operate with the mainland to achieve this national dream.

One world, two dreams. Which will prevail? Some say the heyday of the American dream has already passed. Political gridlock, a mountain of debt and the phenomenal economic rise of Asia have combined to turn America into a sinking ship. A friend who lives on the mainland enthused about China being the new beacon. He rehashed tales of Westerners, including Americans, streaming into thriving mainland cities to realise a new dream of jobs and opportunity in greener pastures, after having lost faith in the old one back home.

China is indeed where the economic action is now. But Xi's Chinese dream is largely meant for Chinese people. I can't see China becoming the new land of opportunity in the same way the US was, and still is to a degree, for the oppressed around the world seeking a new life and liberty.

Perhaps the lofty ideal of linking liberty with opportunity has become an anomaly. Socialism with Chinese characteristics, which mainland leaders repeatedly espouse, doesn't stress liberty. Yet no one can deny the country has, in recent years, provided the opportunity for millions of Chinese to attain middle-class status, even to the point that they are besieging popular tourist destinations worldwide.

But to each his own dream. Hongkongers already have theirs. It is not Xi's lofty one of a great China renaissance. Climbing the social mobility ladder through hard work is not even part of the Hong Kong dream ethos. The dream is a down-to-earth one - become a millionaire the quick and easy way by speculating on property. And why not? The bulk of Hong Kong's 600,000 millionaires made their money from property and the stock market.

Maybe the reason why the Hong Kong dream is short on moral ideals and long on the dollar sign is because people here have long since given up on the social mobility ladder that was once a pillar of our so-called can-do spirit but has since become a myth. Moral ideals go out of the window when you have to live in slum subdivided flats, or survive on welfare handouts, as nearly 270,000 Hongkongers do. To these people, the Hong Kong dream, or any other dream, is just that - a dream.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host.