The World: Insider's View - Hong Kong

The small size and supranational status of the island will ensure that it continues to play a vital role in the Asia-Pacific region, Ian Thubron writes.

China is the focus of the world's attention - particularly Shanghai, the city in which I lived and worked in from 2002 to 2004.

We all know the macro GDP growth figures, but in luxury goods, alcoholic drinks, real estate and electronics (whatever category you care to name), sales in China are booming, and this is only the tip of a massive iceberg.

Small wonder, then, that over the past ten years, clients and agencies have shifted budgets, resources and staff out of Hong Kong into mainland China. It wasn't long ago that agencies had groups of people sitting in Hong Kong servicing clients throughout China. No more. Strong offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou at least are now a pre-requisite presence in the mainland.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong has suffered economic stagnation, Sars, bird flu, a weak government and a welter of other body-blows that would have felled a lesser nation. Many of the top agencies have seen headcount halved in a decade.

Does this mean Hong Kong's role as the major hub for the communications industry is over? Perhaps not ... Earlier this year, a BusinessWeek lead story roared: "Hong Kong ... it's back." The feature cited rising property prices and growing sales of luxury goods as proof that the dragon still had fire.

More importantly, Hong Kong remains the pre-eminent Asian supercity from which to manage an increasingly complex region. Hong Kong - and, to be fair, Singapore is similar in this respect - is regionally and internationally focused, as opposed to domestically focused.

Sydney is an international city, but it is the commercial capital of Australia. Shanghai is increasingly internationalist, but is very much the commercial capital of China. Yet Hong Kong's domestic market is so small, that it is forced to be truly international, regional, supranational, in fact.

Infrastructure, the airport, the business environment, the entrepreneurial people, the "can do" spirit ... all are cited as reasons why Hong Kong is a great regional centre. But the reality lies in its location and this supranational status.

Hong Kong is integrally linked to China, Asia's most dynamic market.

Yet because it is also separate, it does not exclude other markets from its mindset. In Shanghai, you can become so consumed with the scale and complexity of the Chinese domestic market that you tend to forget Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, India, Vietnam and others.

In this lies Hong Kong's enduring importance. This is not something Shanghai can challenge, because China justifiably dominates its thinking. It may be counter-intuitive, but I believe Hong Kong's greatest days lie ahead.

- Ian Thubron is the chief executive of TBWA\Hong Kong and the executive vice-president of TBWA\Asia-Pacific.

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