WHY HONG KONG IS SUCCESSFUL

The trade official points out the window of his 31st-floor office and proclaims: There's no need to do research on the reasons for Hong Kong's success. Just look at all the ships in the harbor.

There are, indeed, plenty of ships. Last year, over 13,000 ocean-going vessels entered this harbor. That was over 12 percent the total for 1984. Total cargo loaded and discharged by all vessels, including small riverboats trading with Pearl River ports in China, totaled 53.7 million metric tons, up 13 percent from 1984.And the Hong Kong Marine Department, which functions as the territory's port authority, doesn't even have a marketing arm!

The port's success is, of course, a reflection of Hong Kong's tremendous economic achievements.

With a population of just 5.5 million people, it ranks as the 13th largest trader in the world.

Of course, not everyone has shared in the prosperity; there are some people who sleep on the streets, but in the central business district at least, they are certainly far less conspicuous than the street people I pass during my usual twice- a-day walk between the World Trade Center in New York and this newspaper's Wall Street offices.

And while there are still some shanty towns, they are far fewer than in the mid-70s, when I visited here quite frequently. The government, to its credit, has built dozens of high-rise apartment complexes to house tens of thousands of people, if not many more than that.

Considering the economic stagnation that has afflicted Britain over the past 40 years, I find it rather surprising that a British colonial government has managed to preside over such a phenomenal success story halfway around the world. There are, however, some good reasons to explain this apparent inconsistency.

The first is Hong Kong's human resources. Over 98 percent of its people are Chinese, and the Chinese here in Hong Kong certainly must constitute one of the hardest-working and most entreprenuerially minded labor forces in the world. The fact that so many of them are immigrants may be an added plus.

As our own history in the United States demonstrates, immigrants tend to be more highly motivated than later generations. The immigrants to Hong Kong also have generally been very young and thus constitute a good supply of cheap labor.

Alan Wong, senior manager of operations with the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, says the key factor has been the government's consistent policy on trade and industry. Our philosophy is simple: free trade and minimum interference, he said.

If an industry is dying here, the government will let it fold, rather than forcing companies to keep their factories open. The same applies to the government's trade policy. There are no tariffs on imports, nor are there any other external barriers to trade. Nor does the government subsidize exports.

The structure of Hong Kong's economy makes it easy for the government to take such an enlightened policy.

As Hamish Macleod, Hong Kong's Trade Director, said in an interview: Things are delightfully simple for us. We don't have auto, steel and agricultural sectors to worry about. What we have is basically light industrial products.

Textiles and garments account for 40 percent of Hong Kong's exports, electronics a further 18 percent, while watches, clocks, toys, dolls and plastic products are the other leading commodities sold overseas.

Politically, Hong Kong has had the luxury of a bureaucracy free to focus on the long-term rather than having to worry about elections every couple of years. While the British administration here has not been democratic, it would seem fair to characterize it as both benign and efficient.

Political stability has helped to foster a steady growth in real wages since the 1950s, and as Mr. Macleod said, The wealth has in fact percolated down.

Rags-to-riches stories here are two to a penny. The mobility of Hong Kong's labor force has also enabled entrepreneurs to open and close businesses with the utmost of ease. Although the picture for Hong Kong right now is very bright, there are some big question marks looming in the future.

The biggest, of course, is whether China will honor the commitments it made in the agreement signed with Britain in September 1984 on the reversion of Hong Kong to Chinese jurisdiction in 1997. The agreement calls for Hong Kong to maintain its own separate economic system for 50 years after the Chinese regain sovereignty.

Another big question is how fast Hong Kong can stay ahead of the competition from countries with even cheaper labor. Hong Kong's success thus far in moving into higher quality merchandise and being able to provide good delivery would seem to augur well for the future, but the competition from other countries is getting constantly tougher.

Finally, there is the question of protectionism. Although Hong Kong does not engage in protectionism itself, it is often lumped together with Japan and the other growing economic power houses of East Asia, particularly Taiwan and South Korea. Retaliatory measures aimed at Japan, Taiwan and South Korea could also be very harmful to Hong Kong.

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