Early June 2011
Henry and I had a wonderful time in Hong Kong. We went there for his nephew, Aaron’s, bar mitzvah. We stayed at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel … a terrific place, which I commend to all who can afford it! Hong Kong itself is amazing. In the area where the hotel is, one’s surrounded by a great variety of high-end European and American shops, all accessible without leaving the building through a network or pedestrian and tunnels bridges: Armani, Dior, Chanel, Prada, Paul Smith … they’re all there. A shopper’s paradise. Not being shoppers, we mostly just gawped … but popped into Marks and Spencer to pick up summer jackets that were on sale. I spent some time over in Kowloon visiting a (live) bird market, a (live) fish market and a (live) flower market. All wonderful—though the first had a strong odor reminiscent of our barn when we’re raising our ducklings in New Jersey!
We were in Hong Kong on the night of June 4th, the anniversary of Tiananmen Square massacre when tens of thousands of people held memorial candles in Victoria Park. Ai Weiwei was on the newsstands—on the cover of Time Out Hong Kong—when we arrived. So one did have a sense that Deng’s “one country two systems” idea is real, even if Hong Kong’s system is far from democratic. That it isn’t democratic is one of the reasons that development has proceeded so fast, with an amazing density of modern skyscrapers. That there are some brakes on development, from environmental activists, for example, reflects the fact that it’s more democratic than, say, Shanghai, where the amazing developments of the past few years have not had to face such constraints.
I had fascinating conversations over the course of the week with scholars, diplomats, and business people. I came away feeling much more worried about the direction that China is headed. For one thing, I hadn’t been aware of the extent to which one can’t rely on business data, even when it’s vouched for by major accounting firms. So that there are real risks of implosion not only in the property market—which everyone, including the government, agrees is worryingly overheated—but also in other sectors in which outsiders have invested.
I visited Macau for a day-trip, where the casinos have names that connect them with Las Vegas: the Venetian has a Venetian canal on which you can take a gondolier ride … on the second floor! Like all such places, Macau is apparently home to a vast money-laundering system, one of whose functions is to allow Chinese businesses—legitimate and not—to get money out of China. But it’s also home to some of the more unsavory sides of other people’s corruption. For example:Angola has a surprisingly significant representation in Macau for a poor country. And the fact that Portuguese is spoken in both Angola and Macau—both were Portuguese colonies once—isn’t the only reason. A huge amount of money swishes around the Angolan government and its oil income … some of it gets laundered a pleasant boat ride away from downtown Hong Kong.