Is there a good reason why we are where we are?

An Indian visitor, any Indian visitor, who steps outside the subcontinent and goes east or west is immediately struck by the value that is placed on the human life. The footpaths don’t suck you in. Motorised vehicles stop for you if you are crossing the street. Buildings have easy-access ramps for the handicapped. And the public toilets and rest areas are as clean as hospital ICUs.

An Indian or NRI returning home from east or west, on the other hand, is struck by how little our netas and babus have learnt from a million “study tours”. Trivial issues dominate the discourse: Road and rail blockades by the agitator-of-the-day. Blackening of English sign boards by language activists. Bans on books, films, paintings by the moral police.

Parks, playgrounds and other public property are in the ICUs.

In the sixth and final episode of his six-part series, “Our Man in China” T.J.S. George writes on how his heart sank to see China doing the same in Hong Kong to his beloved Star Ferry. And how it suddenly soared.

***

By T.J.S. GEORGE in Hong Kong

For generations of imperial fortune hunters, Hong Kong was a corner of a foreign field that was for ever England. The funny thing is that, 10 years after the People’s Republic of China acquired full sovereignty over the erstwhile colony, Hong Kong still remains what the British made of it.

The Red Flag flies over government buildings, of course. But Macdonnell Road and Robinson Road still commemorate Messrs Macdonnell and Robinson whoever they were. There is no rail roko demanding their renaming. Hong Kong’s superb airport is known simply as Hong Kong International Airport. There is nothing like the cries that were heard for Chhatrapathi Shivaji Maharaj in Mumbai or are now being heard for Kempe Gowda in Banga… er, Bengaluru.

Although the yuan Renminbi is China’s official currency, the old Hong Kong dollar holds sway in this special territory. Indeed, the currency notes continue to be issued by that famous limb of colonialism, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, complete with the British lion (which is very different from the Chinese lion).

Across the waters in Macau, the Portuguese flavour is maintained undisturbed. The currency there is still the Pataka. Signboards are in Chinese and Portuguese. Street names remain as unpronounceable to the non-Portuguese tongue as before. The Rua Norte do Mercado de S. Domingos, for example.

It must be that when you are confident about your inner strength, you don’t waste your energy on superficialities. The Government of China is the supreme authority in Hong Kong and Macau. Once that is established beyond doubt, all energies can be directed towards one goal—continually improving the quality of life in these mega metropolises.

That is exactly what is happening. The iconic symbol of Hong Kong is the Star Ferry, the green boats that plough the harbour to and fro every few minutes. I was scandalised when I saw the old familiar Star Ferry pier on the island demolished.

Feeling betrayed, I walked about the area which had been turned into a major construction site.  Another commercial building, I thought, cursing real estate tycoons.

Then I noticed that posters had been pasted on the temporary walls enclosing the vast construction site.  They gave details of the work in progress.  The authorities were constructing there “The New Central Waterfront—An Arts and Entertainment Corridor.”

The large posters, carrying text and artist’s projection of proposed facilities, graphically told the passing citizen (or visitor) what was coming up on the corridor. “A waterfront of international standard as well as a harbour for the people, a harbour of life, will be developed here for an unrivalled passive recreational open space with spectacular views across the everchanging harbour.”

Make an allowance for the bureaucratic English and you learn that “the corridor will comprise a network of bridge and deck links. New small and large-scale cultural and recreational developments will be provided.”  And it was reassuringly mentioned that “the iconic Star Ferry terminal will be recreated.”

Look at the attitude of mind at government level.  They not only pull down an already developed area and rebuild it in ultramodern style to ensure enhanced “public enjoyment”; full details of the plans are placed before the people for them to know what’s going on.

(For comparison, look at the “improvements” in the arterial road to the new airport at Bangalore. The public never knew what the scheme was and how a stretch of road was being altered until the work actually neared completion.)

The difference between a developed country and a developing one is that public facilities are conceptualised and put in place for the convenience of the public. You notice that when you drive around in America, go to the theatre in London, take the underground in Paris, find your way in sprawling airports like Frankfurt.

By that yardstick, China is a developed country already.

Countries in East Asia have their problems, but they are making rapid progress in making life easy and comfortable for their citizens.

Their standards are conitnually rising. Are ours? At some point we need to ask about the meaning of big growth rates and big company acquisitions, and why, alongside the burgeoning mall life, slum life is also burgeoning.  Even Malaysia has abolished poverty.

In the end, why are we where we are?

Photograph: Star Ferry Pier in Kowloon, originally uploaded by GluehweinEffects/ Flickr.