Richard Wong (no relation to Peter Wong) runs the Hong Kong Center for Economic Research. A University of Hong Kong economics professor, he is generally sanguine about this territory’s trajectory. However, he does lament the government’s major involvement in two key areas.
“About half the population lives in government housing,” Wong says, with Hong Kong’s mighty Victoria Peak rising at his back. “A simple solution would be that government can continue this program, but whoever joins this program should be able to acquire the property after five years at a fairly low price and become a private property owner.” As it stands, the government owns all undeveloped land and occasionally sells parcels, which is one non-tax source of government revenue. (Compare that to the U.S. government, which keeps buying private land, even as it mismanages its existing property portfolio.)
Wong’s public-housing divestment proposal parallels Margaret Thatcher’s privatization of council houses in the United Kingdom, which transformed millions of Her Britannic Majesty’s tenants into owners.
“This would be one way to enhance the private-property system in Hong Kong,” Wong adds. “It will help a lot of relatively poor households get assets quickly. The current system basically freezes the land value and nobody gets it.”
“The other thing would be health care,” Wong notes, “which is very difficult to handle. It’s not easy. Although the government is at the moment trying to introduce some sort of an insurance scheme as an option out of the public health system.”
Given Hong Kong’s 99 years of British rule, a local version of the National Health Service hardly is shocking. Whether it gravitates toward private medicine or — gasp! — Obamacare will remain a ripe debate topic.
For his part, Lion Rock’s Peter Wong, a trained chemist, raises the specter of titration. In such an experiment, an acid is dripped slowly into a beaker of an alkaline substance.
No single drop seems to do very much. However, Wong adds, “If you keep adding acid to the basic solution, you don’t see the color change, until you hit a tipping point, and then everything changes in one second.” The entire solution switches color, from top to bottom.
So far, none of these government encroachments on this territory’s economic freedom has changed its fundamental character, but Wong worries that a Chinese water torture of self-imposed regulatory drips suddenly may turn Hong Kong red.
“We still have enough buffers to absorb the bad things, until one point,” Wong says. “I don’t know where that is.”
While all of this may seem ominous to Hong Kong people, as they call themselves many over-governed Americans gladly would swap the U.S. Congress for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. If Hong Kong is guilty of anything, it may be devolving from a Goldwater-style high-octane model of markets all the way down to something fueled by Ronald Reagan–style regular leaded gasoline.
G. Andrew Work puts this into perspective.
“A lot of the things that Hong Kong does to step into the economy, every other modern economy does them — times ten,” he says, behind his large, amazingly clean desk above Hollywood Road. “Those of us in pro-free-market circles bemoan these things. But when we travel to other places, we find out that there is all of that plus, plus, plus . . . ”
For now, Hong Kong may face droplets of statism within its ocean of economic liberty. While Hong Kong people have every right to complain about this, Americans enduring the pounding surf of socialism should behold the rest of Hong Kong’s example and chant: “Let’s try this at home.”
— New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service, a Fox News contributor, and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University.