Set our “automatic adjustment mechanism” free

(Next Magazine, 2017/03/23, A002, Second Opinion, Bill Stacey)

Set our “automatic adjustment mechanism” free

Through the campaigns for Chief Executive, candidates rolled out their plans, policies and visions for the future. They talk about livelihood, the economy, youth and public services. Yet we know and indeed hope that little of this will matter for the future or Hong Kong or our own future as citizens.

A successful society is one where government leadership does not matter very much. People are self reliant and have the freedom and capacity to deal with their own problems. In truth, it is not the plans of the government, but instead our own plans, that matter for our livelihoods.

Problems and challenges emerge, we lose jobs, health has ups and downs, personal relations change and businesses have to adapt. Mostly, dealing with these challenges is a personal responsibility. We are better able to meet those challenges in an environment rich of opportunities, of businesses delivering services efficiently and those we choose to cooperate with are our friends, family or commercial partners.

Societies start to break down when people believe that they are not in control of their own destiny for the things that matter to them. When people are reliant for their livelihood on an external force or power, then control of that power, rather than cooperation on individual goals, becomes essential to survival. Conflict, rather than progress is the result. More government spending and a looser public purse mean more conflict, not less.

The magic of Hong Kong has been that, from its founding, it was not the center of visionary leadership or a center of political power. It was long incidental to the colonial ambitions of the United Kingdom, nor important to the imperial dominions that it was separated from. It has been a place that people have chosen to come to to pursue their own goals, because it is more free, choices are many, the touch of government is light and there has been no obligation to sign on to some grand vision or ideology.

This does not mean a lack of ambition or vision; there are plenty but they are individually based and often in competition with each other. They have been able to peacefully coexist through a rule of law that adjudicates disputes and a culture that studiously leaves people and families to their own devices.

The French call this laissez faire and it has allowed us to become a remarkably outward looking global city. People come here from around the world, because we are one of the best places in the world to do business. Despite its recent phenomenal economic growth, people from other parts of China still prefer to come here to live. Some of those who have emigrated have returned seeing there are more opportunities here, meanwhile some also leave, but they all keep their local ties. This constant flow of people has spawned global businesses and influenced global culture.

We have been open to new ideas, whilst leading in others. Octopus was a pioneering payments system. It is now old hat and needs to adapt. New waves of innovation like Uber and Tesla have found success here, but unfortunately now find resistance. While being uniquely open to the world, we leave people alone to pursue their own distinctive visions; this has made us far more resilient than most places.

Our new Chief Executive will succeed or fail not on the effective implementation of carefully laid out plans, or on how successfully they deal with the unexpected – and inevitable – crisis. Rather, it is on his or her governing instinct when the crunch time comes.

In the past, the colonial government’s instinct was to count on the resilience of the Hong Kong people, i.e. Sir Philip Haddon-Cave’s “automatic adjustment mechanism” of a highly flexible, adaptable and open economy, maintenance of the rule of law, fiscal prudence and stable money.

This instinct has put us on the map. May our new CE keep faith with it so our people’s resilience, aka the “automatic adjustment mechanism”, can work its magic – unhindered.

Bill Stacey

The Lion Rock Institute

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