Facts Inspire Fiction …

I wonder how many readers of this post are aware that the “democracy” brokered between Britain and China on behalf of the Hong Kong people, is anything but democratic. Or that the government here owns all the undeveloped land and that despite covering some 1044 square kilometres, its population of 7 million is crammed into narrow strips of land with densities as high as 54,530 persons per square kilometre–in some cases living in apartments where one person enjoys just 12.9 square metres of living space. Or that a jumper-suicide can be cleaned up in less than an hour, with the remaining tenants being none-the-wiser.

Hong Kong is a place of contradictions. It is democratic, and yet it isn’t, not really. It is part of China, and yet it remains separate to it. It is wealthy, and yet, 45.8% of all its housing is either publicly owned or is subsidised; the majority of its people crammed into well-organised, if claustrophobic, sky-towers.

The oddity of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LEGCO) is the Functional Constituency. Fully half of LEGCO’s 70 seats are allocated to the elected representatives of constituencies considered so vital to the on-going development of Hong Kong–to Big Business–that they cannot be trusted in the hands of the people. Instead, they go to industry cabals, representing Finance, Financial Services, Real Estate and Construction and so on. That’s 35 seats for which there are then only 212,227 eligible voters. The smallest of them–by voter numbers–is Insurance: it has only 144 registered voters. This is akin to the boards of JP Morgan and Citibank sending a joint representative to Congress. Yep, this is the democracy that China fears so much that it won’t allow its leader to call himself Prime Minister–he must be called the Chief Executive. And he must be elected by a 1200-strong specially appointed Election Committee, all approved by Beijing.

Land hoarding creates another oddity. Hong Kong is a wealthy-ish place, but the government determines how much land to release for development each year; and there are only a half-dozen companies that can afford to turn up to the auction. This is bound to distort the economy, and it does. It hurts everyone. After all, if you took out a HK$5m mortgage for a HK$8m, 1000 square foot apartment–still more than an hour’s commute from the city–you absolutely need to stay in work (HK$7.80/US$1). And given there are so few employment protections, you need to keep your boss happy. You also need for interest rates to stay low and you need for the currency to remain stable. You crave stability–at almost any cost.

This concentration of power in the hands of generally unrepresentative Representatives and the largely man-made land scarcity distorts everything; and this distortion benefits some more than others. Let’s consider transport. When a new commuter line goes in, the MTR is given the land across which it can lay its tracks. It is also given land on which to put its stations. This then gives the company (the MTR is a publicly owned company listed on the HKSE) a license to print money in the property game. Over each station they build malls. They build residential towers. They operate residential maintenance contracts, they maintain our residential security and organise the clean up after people jump from their towers. They build railway towns.

I live in one such town. It’s a place called Tung Chung, which lies very close to the airport. You can find it on Google maps–I live in one of the long line of 50-storey towers facing the airport. I doubt it is the same kind of railway town that existed in the US Mid-West during the 19th century–there are no evil railway barons that I know of; there are no muddy streets–but I’m guessing it has much the same feel about it.

I find the dynamics that weave their way through this City interesting. After all, if you look deep enough, you’ll find everything you need for a good fiction: a corrupted (at least highly compromised) “democracy”; a dozen or so “too big to fail” families (all of whom caste long, hard-to-see shadows in the corridors of power); the hoarding and uneven distribution of land; a super-power-in-the-making just across the border; and a bunch of local politicians and business leaders kow-towing in that direction looking for hand-outs … there’s even an ageing, weakened super-power, desperately trying to manage the region’s future.

And so Hong Kong is the inspiration for Go Down City, the capital city of Trevon, a planet in the Outer-Rim, as depicted in my novel Scat. Go Down is also filled with well-educated, “can-do” people. It is rich in resources. It is wealthy. But it is also tied to business–a single company–and the residents there live their lives under a constitution that you, and I, couldn’t possibly sign up for. And yet, for a desperate Earth, looking to import the cheap resources that it needs to sustain its population, this is the way forward. This is the compromise it has made on behalf of its 21bn population.

Until, that is, a young man is pushed too far in the wrong direction. When he finally realises he has nothing of value to lose … and absolutely everything to gain.

3 thoughts on “Facts Inspire Fiction …

  1. Your post provides a very interesting look behind the Hong Kong scenes, Jim. I had no idea the political system was organized in such a way. However, things can lean too far the other way. Leftist environmentalism and neurotic fears of man-made global warming are pushing many English pensioners into the poor house. Some of my own relatives there survive huge energy bills with the help of government handouts, hardly a satisfactory situation when relatively cheap energy is still possible. Perhaps one day sanity will prevail in this world? Anyway, I like the way you have used the Hong Kong milieu to enhance the realism of your novel.

  2. Thanks, Tom. I’m constantly amazed at how you manage to keep up the regularity and quality of your own posts–especially given the topics. As for the environment, I think I see it through a different lens. As I look out over the airport here in HK, not so many miles from the worlds largest-ever manufacturing centre, I see clear blue skies up above, but a dirty brown smudge hugging the ground, stretching from extreme left to extreme right across the Pearl River Delta, blocking my view of the low mountains in the New Territories, some 6-7 miles away. I often smell the sulphur and can taste the coal dust as it wafts down the Pearl River and makes its way–all the way–to Canada. Honestly speaking, I’m not so sure our Mother Earth has the lungs to handle the up-coming boom in cheap oil and gas. Hope I’m wrong. Too late if I’m not.

    • Forgot to click the notification box so I missed this one!

      I appreciate the poor local conditions in and around China, Jim, but Europe, South Eastern Canada, and the American North East all had similar conditions for over a century and a half and we survived quite handily. As China cranks up, the old industrial centres are winding down, so it balances out. Coal does not have to be so dirty and the Chinese will make the move to cleaner plants once they see the need.

      My concern with the European approach is their heavy emphasis on wind and solar when both are ridiculously inefficient and therefore cripplingly expensive. Natural gas is affordable and clean enough for the time being. I believe the energy sector should be allowed to evolve in a natural way that provides affordable energy while it develops cleaner alternatives. Heavy government subsides distort the marketplace by putting garbage technology to the fore while leaving more sophisticated solutions starving for investment.

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