Clinton decision on MFN a lifesaver for Hong Kong

A DECISION by the United States to maintain China's Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status is likely to have saved Hong Kong up to 75,000 jobs and ensured that about nine per cent - or around $187 billion - was not wiped off the territory's trade receipts.

But any sighs of relief will quickly give way to concern about whether the annual ritual will be repeated next year and whether the uncertainty it creates will drive manufacturers to other emerging economies like Vietnam and India.

There is also a general perception that US foreign policy on China is suffering from a lack of clear objectives and the political will to achieve those goals.

Hong Kong business leaders are demanding that the issues of human rights and trade be finally de-coupled and that a more realistic forum - such as a bilateral Sino-US commission on human rights - be set up to discuss differences in human rights.

When the US Government confers MFN status it means the recipient will be paying the same duties and receiving the same concessions as the imports of competitor nations.

Hong Kong's business community made it clear to the US administration that revocation of MFN status would have had a disastrous impact on the economy of Hong Kong.

According to Hong Kong's American Chamber of Commerce, its renewal could have saved the territory between six and nine per cent - or up to $187 billion - in trade receipts.

Re-exports from China could have dropped by 33 per cent to 46 per cent, a loss of around $77 billion from the territory's coffers.

Jobs saved by renewal are estimated to be in the region of 75,000, representing an estimated $26 billion in income.

Then there are the incalculable savings: the boost in confidence; future investment ventures; and the resultant strengthening of Hong Kong's role as a gateway to China.

Financial services are now a slightly larger component of gross domestic product than servicing the China-related trade flows.

Had China been deprived of MFN status, it would have become a significantly less attractive investment prospect and there would, in addition, have been the knock-on effect on the territory's financial services sector.

China's current account deficit, combined with slim foreign exchange reserves - estimated to be about 2.5 months at the end of 1993 - suggests that the impact of a loss of exports and capital inflows into China would push the economy into a balance of payments crisis and a hard landing.

The political consequences of this economic stress could have been daunting. It is difficult to to quantify the damage but common sense suggests that a political or economic breakdown in China would have an extreme impact on Hong Kong.

The US administration has also been told by local business leaders that the decision to renew would save around 200,000 American jobs, particularly in the technology and aviation sectors.