The Corner

Density Not Destiny

Mark:  I’m with you on pretty much all matters related to immigration, but I think your “Density is Destiny” point needs qualification.

My own formative political experience was living in one of the most densely-populated places in the world — Hong Kong, in the early 1970s. In some of the working-class areas of Kowloon, spot density hit one person per square meter. It’s all high-rises, of course; but on evenings around Lunar New Year, when everyone came out to stroll on the streets, you got the full effect.

The place had almost no government, just a few hundred British civil servants on temporary assignment administering the affairs of five million people. Law enforcement was sketchy: If you called the police for any occurrence less serious than homicide, they just asked you for money, and arrested you if you didn’t give them enough. Living conditions were awful, families with four or five kids packed into one bare room. There was no welfare at all. If you didn’t work, and had no family to help you, you starved. The place had no natural resources — Hong Kong’s just a lump of bare rock. Even the water was piped in from China.

Yet it worked very well. You could walk those Kowloon back streets late at night — I did, many nights — without coming to any harm; catch a movie; stop off at a food stall for a delicious snack; have your fortune told; come upon a Cantonese Opera troupe doing a full-dress production to an appreciative audience in some little public square … and next morning everyone was back at work doing something productive. The schools were excellent, basic medical care was cheap, and there were fewer beggars than I see in Manhattan today.

And now, 40 years later, the place ranks sixth in the world by GDP per capita, just behind the U.S.A. By economic freedom, it’s number one.

Plainly Hong Kong’s density hasn’t held it back. Nor — astounding to relate! — has the territory’s lack of demographic diversity. (The population is 95 percent Chinese.) What accounts for Hong Kong’s success, I wonder?


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