After nine years, it's time to leave the stage

In his final column, Tom Holland laments the fact that despite dramatic growth on the mainland, many of its problems have become even worse

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 March, 2014, 12:25am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 March, 2014, 12:25am

Gentle readers, this will be my last daily column for the South China Morning Post.

After nine years, 2,000 articles, and 1.5 million words - more even than Marcel Proust's seven-volume A la recherche du temps perdu - it is time for me to move on and do something else.

It's been a fascinating and eventful nine years to work as a business columnist. But glancing back, it is perhaps less surprising how things have changed than how much they have remained the same.

An awful lot has changed, of course. When I joined the South China Morning Post in February 2005, Tung Chee-hwa was still the chief executive of Hong Kong's government, and the city was struggling to emerge from a six-year-long deflationary slump.

Property prices were down by half from their level at the time of the 1997 handover. The benchmark Hang Seng Index of blue-chip stocks was 25 per cent below its March 2000 peak, and unemployment was at 6.7 per cent, double its long-term average.

Within weeks the hapless Tung had stepped down, and today, two chiefs later, those hard times seem a distant memory.

In the years since, Hong Kong's economy has grown by more than 40 per cent in real terms. The property market has soared 130 per cent. The Hang Seng Index is up 63 per cent, and unemployment has fallen by half.

However, the changes in Hong Kong pale beside those on the mainland, where many of the cities have altered almost beyond recognition.

Nine years ago, China's economy ranked seventh in the world; smaller than Italy's. Today it is second only to the United States and is widely tipped to reach number one by the end of the decade.

Back then an estimated 94 million mainlanders had access to the internet. Today the number is well over 600 million. Then there were just 11 million private cars on China's roads. Today there are nearly 100 million.

In 2005 the yuan was still pegged to the US dollar. Now it has strengthened by more than a third and is even touted as a likely replacement for the US currency in world markets.

Clearly there have been enormous changes. Yet a look back at some of those early columns quickly shows that many of the things people were concerned about then remain worries today.

Back in 2005, government officials were sounding the alarm about a structural deficit in Hong Kong's public finances. The city's fiscal position was unsustainable, they warned, arguing the only way to balance the books would be to impose a goods and services tax.

Public opinion rightly rejected such an unnecessary and regressive tax proposal. And today, with the government sitting on accumulated surpluses worth nearly four years of government spending, Hong Kong's public finances are stronger than ever.

Yet officials continue to warn about the emergence of a structural deficit and to call for new taxes to raise even more revenue.

Nine years ago Hongkongers were getting increasingly resentful at the way closed business cartels, often run by property tycoons, were exerting their control over almost every sector of the city's economy.

Today, despite the introduction in 2012 of Hong Kong's first competition law, the cartels still reign supreme, and the tycoons' grip on the economy is as tight as ever.

In 2005 Hongkongers were also worried about the severity of local pollution and angry at the government's failure to do anything to clear the air.

("We have the most environmentally-friendly place for people, for executives, for Hong Kong people to live", claimed then-chief executive Donald Tsang in 2006.)

Today, pollution levels are worse than ever. And while the government has pledged action, whether its promised measures will have any visible effect remains to be seen.

On the mainland, too, the concerns are the same today as they were nine years ago, only now they are magnified tenfold. Pollution, corruption, wasteful investment, the failure of the state to embrace free competition, the fragility of the banking sector, and the weakness of the stock market all rated multiple columns then, just as now.

In short, it almost feels as if nothing has changed at all.

That's not true, of course, but it is the job of a newspaper columnist to highlight official failings and uncomfortable risks, especially in an environment where business chiefs and officials escape almost all public accountability.

I've enjoyed it enormously. And, no, since some are bound to wonder, I've never come under editorial pressure to tone down my stance. And, no, I haven't been pushed out. I just want to move on before I get stale.

Finally, a huge thank you to all the readers who have written in over the years to chastise, correct or encourage me. When this column has been at its best, it was all down to you.

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