The image of Hong Kong - 'Asia's world city' - has been badly damaged by Sars. Political scientist James Tang Tuck-hong, dean of social sciences at the University of Hong Kong, talks to the Post's Editor-at-Large, Chris Yeung, about what can be done. Question: How has the Sars outbreak changed the international perception of Hong Kong? Answer: It has damaged Hong Kong's international reputation, not only because there's a public health problem that poses a risk to others. There are questions about why it has become so serious, with problems in environmental hygiene, the health-care services, crisis management and relations with the mainland. The crisis may reinforce the negative perception of Hong Kong in the international media. There will be questions about our ability to manage problems and maintain our status as a leading city. The fact that many cases around the world originated from Hong Kong has worsened the negative image. We need to act quickly to repair the damage. Q: How will the international community react to seeing the darker side of Hong Kong? A: One of the most damaging implications is that Sars might have been spread because of our poor environment. Images of rats in back streets shown in the international media really don't match Hong Kong's image as a sophisticated world city. Q: Could the government have done better on the public-relations front? A: If we had mechanisms in place to manage our international image, we would have been able to promote our image and maintain relations with neighbouring countries. There was a lot of apprehension among them over such measures as quarantine arrangements. Q: There were predictions of doom and gloom for the future of Hong Kong, prior to 1997. Are we facing another image crisis now? A: Prior to 1997, the prediction of the death of Hong Kong reflected the apprehension about a vibrant city being subdued by a government unsympathetic to capitalism. The latest comments on Hong Kong see the city becoming increasingly irrelevant as the mainland liberalises its economy and becomes more sophisticated. We face problems on two fronts. First, we have to maintain qualities such as the rule of law and freedom, manage our problems well and connect with the world. Second, we need to work closely with the mainland to facilitate growth. The crux of the problem is how to meet both expectations. Q: Will the Sars crisis deepen the perception that Hong Kong is on a slippery slope? A: We are in a tricky situation. If Hong Kong's main function is to facilitate development on the mainland, people will also be exposed to the downside of operating there. There are now other issues, such as public health. It will give us another edge if we can project an image of having a system in place to manage our problems, so people who operate here can enjoy our strengths. Q: What are the key messages in any relaunch of the city? A: We should promote Hong Kong as a quality city, not just a good place for business. While it has the benefit of easy access to other parts of China, it also has unique qualities: a good environment, security, safety, proper management, the rule of law and access to information. Some positive things have come out of Sars. We have transparency, an army of dedicated professionals and strongly civic-minded and responsible international citizens. Q: How can Hong Kong reach a wider audience? A: Hong Kong enjoys more autonomy in international affairs following the handover. This has become more important because of globalisation, with more issues cutting across political and economic boundaries. The Sars issue is a good example. Officials in Beijing seem open-minded about Hong Kong's involvement. For instance, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa went to the Asean meeting in Bangkok. There's definitely scope for Hong Kong to become more active and develop closer ties with its neighbours. Q: Have we been able to fully utilise that autonomy? A: The perception, particularly among Asian countries, is that Hong Kong does not have a high profile. To be seen as a regional leader, we have to be more active in discussions. Q: What should any relaunch include? A: We need to bring our full range of achievements and qualities to the world. We need to promote environmental sustainability and public health, public management, the legal profession and robust journalistic scene. A vibrant city is built on successes in those areas. The setting up of a centre for disease control (CDC) is a step in the right direction. We should think of promoting Hong Kong in other areas, such as environmental protection and contemporary Chinese culture. Q: Should the government take the lead? A: It does require a partnership between the public and private sectors. Look at the CDC. Although this is a very specialised institution, we have both government and private support. Q: What about the people? A: Hong Kong people are, in general, very willing to help solve problems elsewhere. The international perception may be that Hong Kong people are quite money-minded, but the government should highlight the fact that Hong Kong's population is far more generous than the international community believes. Q: The media tends to focus on negative stories. How can that be turned around? A: That's an issue all governments face. This is a fact of life. The question is how governments can manage things better by providing information.