Contrasts are everywhere – a majestic cityscape against a lush mountainous backdrop; Buddhist temples sat next to modern office buildings; British colonial influences aside the red stamp of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Transport is cheap (the Star Ferry, which takes passengers across Victoria Harbour and is arguably one of Greater China’s most famous tourist attractions, can be enjoyed for the grand sum of 25p) and you’re never far from stunning countryside or a beautiful coastline. Hong Kong buzzes. Land reclamation and construction work surround you. The streets are alive 24 hours a day, whether with swathes of besuited expats wallowing in the nightlife of Lan Kwai Fong or Wanchai, or the chaotic street markets. Along the latter you’ll find folk relying on little other than their considerable entrepreneurial resources by donning a microphone headset and demonstrating a simple, cheap but quick-selling product in a brilliant display of proto-capitalism.
The deliciously low tax rates are a draw to individuals and corporations alike (the highest rate of salary tax is 15 per cent, there’s no VAT and capital gains aren’t taxed, for example). Combined with a clear and well-established legal system, heavily based on English law, and a strong regime of financial regulation, led by the Securities and Futures Commission (SFC), Hong Kong is a safe place to do business. The SFC is flexing its muscles, recently emboldened in its assumed role as guardian of shareholder and public interests by successful action against banks’ mis-selling of financial products, insider dealing and corporate corruption.
At this crucial point in China’s ascendancy, Hong Kong is in an envious position. It has long served as a two-way gateway, channelling Western money into the fertile and complex lands of investment in China and allowing Chinese companies access to equity finance long before Shanghai and Shenzhen opened their stock exchanges in mainland China. Yet with fierce competition from these new financial centres, some fear for Hong Kong’s future as the regional financial hub.
There are other issues. Social and economic inequality is starkly apparent. Popular agitation for political change is mounting: a prosperous and international people won’t stand for their limited access to democracy for long. Plus Beijing has a delicate balance to strike in integrating the city with the rest of China.
Resilient, Hong Kong has survived and prospered after the uncertainty of colonialisation, wartime occupation, the 1997 handover, and a few regional and international economic crises. It continues to benefit from a unique position on the border of the world’s fastest growing economy. With over 160 years’ experience in international trade, 30 years of being a pre-eminent global financial capital and the world’s most active IPO market in 2009, Hong Kong will remain an exciting place to be a lawyer for a long time to come.
Nick Horton is a trainee solicitor at Stephenson Harwood, seconded to the firm’s Hong Kong office.