Trade success hostage to external vagaries

HONG Kong's success story and its runaway stock market are built on quicksand, and nobody seems to have noticed.

The territory is anything but self-sufficient - it never has been. It shot to prosperity on the back of opium it never actually produced, but rather traded.

And more than 100 years later trade is about 300 per cent of its gross domestic product.

The trouble with trade is that it only works when there is someone to trade with. If the buyers go away you're back at square one.

After China launched a well-publicised programme to temper spending, of course Hong Kong exports were going to suffer.

With America, Europe and Japan lodged in recession that seems just precisely as long as a piece of string, who is left to buy the produce being churned out by Hong Kong factories in coastal south China? In June export growth slumped to 6.6 per cent. It picked up again in July, to 19.1 per cent, before slipping back to 13.1 per cent in August.

Deceleration continued the following month, with year-on-year growth up 10.7 per cent. The 7.3 per cent chalked up for October is the second-lowest growth rate since January 1992.

Economists do not expect a turnaround in the short term. Quite simply, there's no one to bail us out.

This is the trend, but there is more besides.

Whatever the pundits may have hoped for, there was no happy ending for America and China on the stage of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Seattle.

US President Bill Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin did not clutch each to the other's breast and agree to let bygones be bygones.

Congress is going to make it very tough for Mr Clinton to renew China's Most Favoured Nation status after last year's renewal, by executive order, spelled out specific conditions.

There are clear targets China has to meet on human rights before America will grant it normal trading status and the message is clear - the way China is going now this is pretty unlikely.

Naturally this is a question of American politics, but the net result of outraged morality in the land of the free does not save tortured Tibetans and it does hurt economics in both China and Hong Kong.

Beyond MFN lies other thorns in the side of the Sino-US trade relationship - market access, intellectual property rights and transshipment of textiles.

If China does not come up to scratch on these issues - and right now it shows no sign of doing so in America's books - the US is going to respond with measures that block trade, either sanctions or curbed quotas.

Once again this would be bang on target on Hong Kong's Achilles' heel - its huge reliance on China trade means it will be sent reeling.

Behind this, behind all the bilateral squabbles, is that one great shining hope - the multilateral system cranking up global trade with the passing of the Uruguay Round.

Unfortunately it looks as if the saviour of the world economy is going to be hijacked by an unwillingness among individual countries to put everything on the table.

There is little doubt that if indeed the Uruguay Round does collapse, over time the multilateral system will wither with it.

The sum total of world trade will not grow: if anything it will contract.

From a regional point of view the picture is especially gloomy. Asia was only just starting to get a piece of the action, and last in is often first out.

Putting the lid on trade liberalisation will take the lustre off China.

Every trade block has its own China - the parallels are Eastern Europe and Latin America. With inflated tariffs and transport costs the 1.17 billion-strong China market and cheap production base which was once hailed by everyone will find interest diminished to parochial levels.

Of course, if the Americans want to carry on pouring money into the stock market which tracks this economy that is their prerogative.

These are the people who at the height of the savings and loan craze banked their kids' college fees with managers who invested in everything from junk bonds to stud farms without a stroke of research.

At least one of those institutions put its money in one such farm where the stud was sterile.

It seems a dumb mistake to make twice.