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Hong Kong as ‘Asia’s World City’? Not any more – and here’s why

We in Hong Kong have lived for so long with the branding of Hong Kong as “Asia’s World City” that I am sure many take it for granted. So a new study by the consultancy PwC makes sobering reading.

PwC’s 2015 “Building Better Cities” study*, released this week at the APEC meetings in Manila, should provide a powerful wake-up call for anyone in Hong Kong who cares for our future. This survey of the livability of 28 cities across the APEC region puts Hong Kong a drab 11th, with shocking ratings for culture and “social health”, health and welfare, and environmental sustainability.

We might not be surprised to see Toronto and Vancouver up in the top two places, but it is irritating to see us lag behind Singapore (3rd), Tokyo (4th), Seoul (7th) and Osaka (10th).

The concept of Hong Kong as Asia’s World City feels like an empty marketing shell

Livable city surveys are always guaranteed to get peoples’ hackles up. I always bristle when I read the Mercer global rankings, and even worse the shockingly opinionated annual Monocle ranking (Hong Kong gets hit for being hot, and for not having enough bicycle lanes). One can quibble too with the PwC rankings. But their methodology is transparent, and their efforts to be objective are commendable. And their main aim is not to humble underperforming cities, but to get us focused on the pressing policy challenges linked with urbanisation. In that they do a good job.

The 28 cities surveyed account for a population of 210 million people, with numbers rising fast. More than half of the Asia-Pacific’s population now live in cities, and the trend is accelerating.

Malaysia’s urban population has grown from 50 per cent of the total population in 1990 to 74 per cent today. Thailand’s urban population has grown over the same period from 29 per cent to 48 per cent. Just this week Xi Jinping reported that China’s urbanites accounted for more than half the country’s population, and will grow at 2 percentage points a year over the coming decade.

Cities are becoming increasingly important economic forces, often on a par with nations. Lima, for example, accounts for 70 per cent of the GDP of Peru. Manila accounts for 45 per cent of the Philippine GDP. Los Angeles alone has a GDP 1.5 times that of Saudi Arabia. As economic dynamos they can be a force for great good.

But they are also aggregators of many of our biggest social blights – pollution, poverty, crime and so on. Last year, cities produced 1.3 billion tonnes of solid waste. As the PwC authors note: “Some cities essentially carry the opportunities and responsibilities of nations.”

It was perhaps with this thought in mind that Hong Kong leaders decided to brand Hong Kong as Asia’s World City 15 years ago. At that point, we accounted for 18 per cent of China’s GDP and were the unchallenged conduit between the dark, unknown Chinese interior, and the global business community.

Today, we account for barely more than 2 per cent of China’s GDP, and much work needs to be done if we are in a decade’s time still going to deserve the “World City” title.

The PwC study still ranks Hong Kong number one among the 28 cities as an economic powerhouse. And in terms of our “connectivity”, we rank an excellent number 2 behind Singapore.

But that is where the comfortable news stops. In terms of our cultural and social fabric we take a pasting – worst of all as the most unequal of all the 28 cities compared. The authors puzzle that one of the world’s most affluent cities should be home to more than a million people living in poverty.

They note that while incomes have risen on average by 42 per cent since 2007, perceptions of poverty are getting worse, as home prices have jumped by 154 per cent.

Our education system is poorly rated, as is lack of cultural diversity and a rising culture of intolerance. Our health care system ranks poorly, in particular in terms of the number of doctors we have serving the needs of our 7.2 million people. Failure to develop non renewable energy gives us a terrible environmental sustainability rating (though I quibble with us being punished for having comparatively few public parks – they should surely take account of our country parks?).

Beyond the city rankings, the study has greatest value in tracking some of the challenges arising from rapid urbanisation, and on the rising importance of city leaders to talk, learn and share with each other. Corrupt activity focused on urban communities costs the global economy at least US$1 trillion, it reports. Traffic congestion will remain a permanent challenge, even with good infrastructure investment: motor vehicles on our city roads are expected to double by 2022.

Pollution challenges will be another constant. Already, Beijing’s annual pollution bill is put at $11 billion. Cities produce 1.3 billion tonnes of solid waste a year. Tackling these problems will require cooperation, knowledge sharing, better data – what they call a “stock market of city ideas”.

To optimise city development, city leaders first and foremost need to be clear on what characteristics differentiate their city. These are the distinguishing factors that underpin competitive advantage. With this knowledge in hand, they then need to collaborate with cities around them.

What screams at me most forcefully as I plough through the study is a depressing realisation that our own administration has no handle on the large majority of challenges that would make Hong Kong a better city, or underpin our future competitive advantage – in short, push us up the rankings.

The concept of Hong Kong as Asia’s World City feels like an empty marketing shell. Knowledge of what distinguishes us seems better expressed in Beijing than here at home. And collaboration with the huge cities in the Pearl River Delta that surrounds us is non-existent. If we are ever to deserve the World City title, our leaders have to do better than this.

David Dodwell is executive director of the Hong Kong-Apec Trade Policy Group

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