Hong Kong: a tale of two cities

June 15, 2010

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(Courtesy of steve webel, Flickr)
Hong Kong's skyline

Barry Weisberg, our global cities contributor is in Shanghai, China for the 2010 World Expo which runs through October. He reports for us as part of our continuing series, “Global Cities: Challenges and Choices.”

Many had concerns about the future of Hong Kong when Britain returned it to Chinese authority in 1997. But Barry Weisberg sees Hong Kong's progression since then as a tale of two cities.

Hong Kong is a city with seven million people and a deep-water harbor that is unrivaled for beauty anywhere in the world. It is a Special Administrative Region of the Peoples Republic of China. In 1997, when Britain returned Hong Kong to China after 99 years, a Faustian compromise was struck to insure “one country, two systems.” While the mainland is a socialist market, Hong Kong remained capitalist. Hong Kong is ranked the “freest” market economy in the world. It is the third most important global city, behind only New York and London. The mystique of Hong Kong has been memorialized in films such as The World of Suzie Wong, or the kung fu sagas of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.

In the Urban Best Practices Area of the Shanghai World Expo, the innovative Hong Kong “Smart Card” is featured. The Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology has been universally employed in shopping, public transportation, toll booths, school attendance, sports and leisure events, fast food, immigration clearance and other services. Soon it will be widespread in education and medical services. Ninety-five percent of people aged 16-65 uses the stored-value card. The Hong Kong airport is one of two airports worldwide to use the RFID for passenger baggage. Yet, like most “smart” city ideas that employ standardized identification, privacy is sacrificed for efficiency. No matter how smart the technology might be, there is no escaping the values that lie behind the choice of any urban technology.

One of the biggest tourist attractions is the spectacular office light and laser shows that bathe the harbor at night. But there is no light shining on the people that are lost behind the dazzling diversion. Over 1.2 million people live below the poverty line. The Gini coefficient, measuring income inequality, places Hong Kong as the most unequal location in all of Asia, behind mainland China and India. There are at least 100,000 people living in 35 square foot or smaller “cages,” sometimes there are even several people per unit.

Thus, Hong Kong has some of the highest property values in the world and some of the worst living conditions anywhere. It has a very high proportion of the world's best restaurants while people search for food in the garbage. Hong Kong is building a “smart city” that grows further away from a “just city” every day. How smart is that?

Hong Kong is the poster child for the “global city,” a duet of beauty and barbarism. Despite the flow of capital in and out of Hong Kong, despite the networks that place Hong Kong at the center of the world economy, are not the cages of the forgotten tenement buildings also a measure of the global city?

At least one billion people now live in slums worldwide, and this may soar to two billion within one generation. These settlements lack basic services, are unhealthy and unsafe. Whether a ghetto, barrio, favela, or shanty-town, the global city is a city of slums. The labeling of these settlements as “informal” denying the actual formality within such communities, works to marginalize and stereotype people who may, due to population growth and escalating urbanization, become the primary motor of the modern city.

Every large city is at least two cities. Most attempts at slum removal or reform, upgrading or up-scaling, further marginalize the poor. In no large city does urban governance have the will, let alone the understanding and knowledge to close the inequality gap. For slum residents there is little or no prospect for a “better” city or a “better” life. This story is not told at the Shanghai World Expo.

Barry Weisberg's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Worldview or 91.5 WBEZ.