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Feature Story

Hong Kong: Alive and Well 20 Years On!

An idiosyncratic look back on how Hong Kong has changed since its handover to China on 1 July 1997
 
As we mark the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s Handover to China, it is inevitable we look back and ponder how much the city has changed in that time. To offer a perspective for those less familiar with Hong Kong’s story, the zeitgeist of the city in the days leading up to 1997 was one of uncertainty and anxiety, as an occasion of this kind and magnitude was truly historically unprecedented – we were in uncharted waters. So the world’s media turned its attention to Hong Kong as 1 July 1997 approached, and not all the prognoses were optimistic or kind. Perhaps the 26 June 1995 Fortune Magazine cover “The Death of Hong Kong” epitomised the sentiments of a large number of international journalists and pundits ready to sound Hong Kong’s death knell.
 
Much has happened to Hong Kong over the past 20 years, and the city' s historical journey has not been all smooth sailing by any means. Still, the demise of Hong Kong was – in the immortal words of Mark Twain – "greatly exaggerated". In fact, Hong Kong is alive and doing very well, and the city is as dynamic as ever; it is widely recognised as one of the world' s leading cities, its reputation underpinned by a sound economy, strong institutions and systems, a strict adherence to the rule of law, and a vibrant civil society. And as ever, Hong Kong' s stunning cityscape and natural beauty, its unique East-meet-West culture and heritage, and its incredible diversity make the city one of the world' s top tourist destinations. Perhaps the doomsayers' predictions back then erred because they did not fully appreciate the incredible resilience and resolve of the Hong Kong people and the strong values they hold dear, which have collectively driven the reinvention of the city over and over again, and which continue to serve as an inspiration for the economic development of the city they built.
 
So join us on an idiosyncratic journey back in time to see how much Hong Kong has changed over these last 20 years!
 
Hong Kong People
 
 
1. Slow population growth:
The population grew modestly from 1996 to 2016, from 6.43 million to 7.35 million, a 14% total increase or 0.66% per year.
 
 
2. Aging society:
Typical of most developed economies, Hong Kong has an aging society; its median age has increased from just 34 years to 43 years over the 20 years. Most of this is due its low birth rate, which declined from 63,000 births to about 60,000 in two decades and with a fertility rate of 1.2 remains well below the replacement rate of 2.1.
 
 
3. Women in the work force:
Hong Kong’s labour participation rate remains steady at 61%, but the aggregate numbers hide some huge demographic changes. The male participation rate has declined sharply from about 76% to less than 69% with total workers holding steady below two million. However, female participation grew from 48% to over 55% from less than 1.3 million to over 1.9 million, a rise of more than 600,000. The knock-on impact on Hong Kong’s economy has been fundamental, including, among other effects, changes in retail spending patterns by women with growing purchasing power.
 
 
4. Domestic helpers:
A direct consequence of more women in the workplace is the doubling of the number of foreign domestic helpers, from around 164,000 to over 340,000, as families increasingly include two working parents.
 
Transport
 
1. Air travel:
Moving the international airport from the iconic Kai Tak to the bluefield site at Chek Lap Kok was to be a highlight of the Handover, although it missed the timing by one year. Still the new airport has more than served its purpose, as it handled over 400,000 aircraft movements and 46 million passengers in 2016, as compared with around 150,000 movements and 23 million passengers in 1996. HKIA remains one of the world’s best airports and the planned third runway should allow it to keep its leading position.
 
 
2. Car:
By world standards, Hong Kong has low car ownership levels but the number of private cars grew from 293,000 to over 520,000 in 20 years, a 77% jump. Similarly the number of motorcycles more than doubled, from 22,000 to 48,000. Interestingly, Kong Kong' s taxi fleet, which provides quick and convenient rides at reasonable prices, has remained at around 18,000 over this period.
 
 
3. Public transport:
More than 5,700 double decker buses carry passengers around the city, up from 4,700. But the bulk of Hong Kong’s public transport is care of the ubiquitous MTR, easily one of the world’s best and most efficient transport systems. It carried over 5.3 million passengers per day in 2016, well up from the 3.55 million of 20 years ago.
 
 
4. Walking:
Hong Kong remains one of the world’s safest cities to walk around, with statistics showing that it has actually become even safer since the Handover. Murder is rarer than in any country save a handful of smaller city states, and dropped from 77 cases in 1996 to just 22 in 2015. Violent crime dropped by over 30% over this period, and overall crime came down by 16%, to just 909 cases per 100,000 population, also one of the lowest rates in the world. So feel free to wander on foot anywhere in Hong Kong, day or night, and explore the city without worry!
 
 
Tourism
 
 
1. Visitor arrivals:
The city has experienced phenomenal growth in tourism, which today is the fourth-largest economic sector, contributing over HK$100 billion to the local economy. Visitor arrivals increased from 13 million in 1996 to 60 million, up more than fourfold. Of course, the exponential growth in China' s outbound tourism was the key driver, as visitor arrivals from China went from 2.4 million to over 45 million, although some 70% of that is for same-day visitors. Still the numbers are truly impressive.
 
 
2. Hotels:
The hotel industry also saw unprecedented growth, as the number of hotels rose from 88 to more than 250 over this period, and total rooms went from 33,000 to 74,000. The proliferation of hotels of all types has certainly put a strain on staffing resources, although the industry more than met the challenge as Hong Kong hotel industry remains the envy of Asia.
 
 
3. City transformation:
To serve the increasing numbers of visitors, several world-class attractions were developed, including Disneyland, Ngong Ping 360, Noah' s Ark, and the Wetland Park. But most impressive is Hong Kong' s continued transformation as a dynamic urban entrepot. New skyscrapers continue to re-shape the city' s skyline, with the pairing ICC and IFC strikingly changing the city' s face. All of Kowloon went through a rebuild as the Kai Tak–imposed height limit was removed. This has resulted in the construction of many high-rise residential complexes, some of 60 storeys or higher. Hong Kong' s continual transition to a service economy has seen many industrial buildings converted or torn down to make way for spanking new offices. Districts such as Kowloon Bay, Kwun Tong, Wong Chuk Hang are all getting facelifts. The city is becoming an art hub, with some of the Asia' s largest art events being held here. And finally, an influx of young millennial expats is breathing a trendy international vibe into neighbourhoods such as Sheung Wan, Sai Yin Pun and Kennedy Town.
 
All these changes have helped enhance Hong Kong' s reputation as a destination of choice whether for leisure or business. So, enjoy your stay during the city' s 20th anniversary of the Handover, and do take some photos to compare when you return 20 years from now!

 

Note: Statistics are from Hong Kong Annual Digest of Statistics, a fascinating and helpful book, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Some data is rounded for clarity.
 
 
(Edited on 4 July 2017)

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