From Sars to Occupy, former chief executive Donald Tsang looks back on challenges Hong Kong has faced in past 20 years

City’s leader from 2005-2012 believes the resilience of the people is crucial to Hong Kong’s future

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 June, 2017, 7:58pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 June, 2017, 12:08pm

An old friend came from Europe recently to offer me moral support and comforting words. He has long retired and seldom travels outside Europe. He last visited Hong Kong at my invitation to witness the handover ceremony in July 1997. A septuagenarian like myself, he still could not hold his excitement once he landed here. He spoke almost non-stop, marvelling at the physical changes that had taken place here – our airport, bridges and highways, Disneyland, MTR extensions, property developments decorating our harbourfront including the IFC, ICC, government buildings at Tamar, etc.

He wondered how Hong Kong could continue to renew itself while his hometown in Europe had stayed almost the same for the past 40 years.

I chuckled with pride at his excitement. He made me mull over the sources of the energy, creativity and boldness that spurred these physical changes in our city. They come down to the financial prowess of Hong Kong and its people, particularly the common values that the latter espouse. Unlike our cityscape, these underlying strengths – rule of law, level playing field, convertible currency, freedom of speech, clean and efficient government and especially the resilience of Hong Kong people – have remained largely unchanged during the past two decades.

Hong Kong has witnessed momentous changes since the transition. Some exhilarating events, like the phenomenal rise in our national strength and our economic integration with the mainland, have bolstered our continuous prosperity. Some others have tested our steadfastness and ingenuity to their limits. Let me cite three episodes, among many others.

The Asian financial crisis came on the heels of our transition in 1997. Having sent away the speculators, we leveraged the aftermath to reform our securities and banking infrastructure, making Hong Kong the strongest global financial centre in the East Asian time zone, earning a triple A credit rating, ranking above most other mature financial markets. This warfare highlighted the heroism of Hong Kong people who supported without reserve the extraordinary measures taken by the government and the Monetary Authority at the time.

Many local people experienced negative assets as the economy receded and the property market imploded. Our industrialists and banking sector suffered also. Yet they persevered. With some underwriting by the government, they vanquished all hardships. Hardly any of them succumbed to the onslaught. Because of these structural reforms, we survived the subsequent global financial crisis occurring in 2008 with no real injury.

In early 2003, the Sars epidemic spread throughout Hong Kong for three months. Over 1,700 local people contracted the disease and 299 of them perished. The whole population fought gallantly, particularly those in our medical profession, some of whom made the ultimate sacrifice. The emergency measures taken during the epidemic and the cleaning-up exercise conducted afterwards took Hong Kong to a significantly higher level of public hygiene and general preparedness against similar outbreaks.

With our experience after Sars, we dealt with the global avian influenza epidemic in 2004 decisively and effectively. Casualties were therefore minimal. Hong Kong people mostly deserved praise for their support of the preventive measures that were put in place.

Few matters in Hong Kong can compare with constitutional reforms in terms of complexity and truculence. In the run-up to the Legislative Council and chief executive elections in 2012, extreme views and conspiracy theories abounded and mutual trust among the principal stakeholders was almost non-existent.

Against all odds, we persevered with endless negotiations between the key parties in Hong Kong and on the mainland during the two-year run-up period. Publicity campaigns and TV debates took place in parallel. Discussions gradually became candid, and personal and party politics were eventually put aside. Progress towards universal suffrage elections, though modest, was achieved for the 2012 elections.

Nothing short of the enormous patience of the key players, the resilience of the Hong Kong people and the blessing of the central government would have yielded this outcome.

No doubt, more challenges lie ahead in the coming years. We need to narrow the income gap that poisons community harmony, provide home ownership for our middle class, prepare for the bursting of the huge bubble in our residential property market, allay the xenophobia that pervades certain sections of our community, restrain the populist politics that subverts our long-term prosperity, take care of our elderly, remedy the ageing population make-up as well as leverage our unique strengths in maximising our benefits from the visionary economic initiatives spearheaded by our national government.

I have no doubt also that with enlightened leadership we can do all this in time. But it must trust the mainstream Hong Kong people holding onto their core values. And never forget their loyalty and resilience.

Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was Hong Kong’s second chief executive, from June 2005-2012. He was previously financial secretary (1997-2001) and chief secretary (2001-2005). He wrote this exclusively for the Post