Don's diary

March 15, 1996

Tuesday. Arrive Hong Kong enveloped in a Manchester-like foggy gloom. After travelling in a toothpaste tube for eight hours, being disgorged on to Kai Tak airport was disconcerting. The volume of airport traffic was a sign of things to come. Order prevailed as 757s gave way to 747s, buses to planes, trolley trains to buses. To the hotel in Mongkok precinct, reportedly the most densely populated place on earth. Having flown over empty expanses, the sea of bobbing heads came as a shock. Comparing our lot with Hong Kong it is no longer the money but the space - miles of it - that defines Australians.

Wednesday. Conference registration at the Sheraton in Kowloon. What a backdrop! Across the harbour the elegant and angularly pleasing face of finance capitalism overlooks the proceedings. The sleekest and tallest skyscraper, the Bank of China building, is testimony perhaps to Hong Kong's impending fate - to be taken over by an emerging economic giant. The talkfest, organised by the Western Economic Association - a group of Californian supply-side neo-liberal economists - is about paying tribute to the effects of economic liberalisation. They chose the venue wisely. Hong Kong is the classic minimal state - no welfare, no defence, fluid markets, structural resilience. In celebration, some of the speakers don those Adam Smith figurehead neckties so beloved by ideologues from rightwing think tanks.

Thursday. The conference begins. Paper after paper on economic esoterica. In the great tradition of perambulating economists, I venture out from the swanky hotel and wander up busy Nathan Road - the main thoroughfare of Kowloon. I salve my conscience by reminding myself that even Adam Smith was one for observing economic activity in the flesh.

The penetrating insights in Smith's masterpiece, The Wealth of Nations, were inspired by his frequent outings around Kirkaldy and Edinburgh. Certainly, the Chinese people's apparent propensity "to truck, trade and barter" would have brought a smile to Smith's face. Indeed the locals seem to set up a market at the drop of a hat. Smith rightly felt that the sole end-purpose of production was consumption.

Today Smith might be aghast at the Hong Kong Chinese reverence for riches, their all-consuming materialism, be it gadgets and trinkets found in street markets or avant-garde European fashion displayed in boutiques. As dedicated followers of fashion the locals are dressed to the nines. My feelings of sartorial inferiority are confirmed by touts thrusting pamphlets into my face offering made-to-measure discount suits.

FRIDAY. On the labour/leisure trade-off Keynes used to remark that "three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in us". The conference organiser feels likewise - only the mornings are occupied with concurrent sessions allowing economists to do what they do best: choose. Afternoons are given over to tours. I escape by ferry to Hong Kong Island but the near misses in the harbour add to the adrenaline of the place. Yet, for all the apparent bedlam, people get to where they are bound, quickly. This city was built to the glorification of Adam Smith, especially his "invisible hand" metaphor. Out of the seeming anarchy of people compressed into a confined space comes an order and a commerce the envy of the world.

Saturday. Back to the conference. The afternoon is spent partaking in the locals' favourite pastime - shopping. The best bargains are the imitation- Italian silk ties. I search in vain for one with an Adam Smith figurehead. Bamboo supports hold up the garish neon signs that festoon the shopping precincts of Kowloon. Rickety in appearance, bamboo is famed for its flexibility. It sums up too the resilience of the place. Even now, with July 1997 approaching, the frenetic pace of activity does not let up; every day, it seems, is the last day before Christmas.

Sunday. Hong Kong is unashamed about the sometimes vulgar disparity in the wealth of its citizens - but the moral sentimentalist in Adam Smith would disapprove. He would have been perplexed as to how every Sunday Filipino maids or amahs congregate around the Central Bus Station on Hong Kong Island. Bus stations must be the most socially alienating places to meet but these women picnic amidst the tar and cement. They, like many other emigres, are here for the money and 15 per cent income tax rates.

Monday. The conference closes after a curiously titled symposium "The future of capitalism?" I feel like telling the speakers to stick their heads outside the window for an answer. The only clouds of uncertainty are those hanging over those taipans owning hilltop mansions with million-dollar harbour views. Chinese Communist Party officials will have to display great discipline not to resist a little expropriating of some salubrious real estate. From the hilltop, the whole place resembles a glitzy Legoland set. Rather appropriately Hong Kong's legislative council, which governor Chris Patten presides over, is shortened to Legco. A backward glance after take-off confirms the perception.

Alex Millmow. Lecturer in economics at Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, New South Wales.

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