Commentary

The City That Trade Built

By Daniel Griswold
December 12, 2005
World Trade Organization members could not have picked a more fitting place for their latest biannual ministerial conference. More than any other WTO member, Hong Kong has built its economy on trade. On the shuttle bus ride in from the airport Sunday night, we passed sprawling docks crowded with thousands of containers stacked under a forest of cranes. In the distance rose the stunning Hong Kong skyline of glass skyscrapers illuminated with a rainbow of neon lights. The city’s dazzling profile stands as the polar opposite, in appearance as well as ideology, of the drab cement-block architecture of closed and centrally planned economies.

This gleaming city built on trade disproves virtually everything claimed by the thousands of anti-trade, anti-WTO protestors descending on the city this week. Hong Kong has practiced free trade for decades, and its 6.9 million residents have reaped the rewards. A poor British colony only a couple of generations ago, today its residents enjoy a standard of living equivalent to $34,200 per capita, making it one of the richest places on earth.

A common refrain leading up to the conference has been that it is unfair to expect poor countries to liberalize their markets as long as rich countries maintain trade barriers against farm imports. That has not been the Hong Kong way. In an official brochure distributed to those attending the conference, Hong Kong’s government states, “Free and open trade is the lifeblood of Hong Kong. It is crucial to our continued economic growth and to the well-being of our people.”

Note the brochure did not say free and “fair” trade. Hong Kong’s policy makers did not whine about the high barriers in other countries, but instead chose to virtually eliminate its own barriers for the sake of its own prosperity.

Protestors also claim trade barriers are necessary to defend “food security.” Tell that to the people of Hong Kong. Even though Hong Kong has almost no farm sector, the markets and grocery stores I see are overflowing with packaged foods and produce from around the world. The Great Food Store near my hotel sells fresh produce from China, Malaysia, Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the United States (yellow and white pearl onions). Hong Kong entrusts its food security to a free, open and prosperous market, as all other nations should.

And then we are told that globalization supposedly wipes out local cultures. Although Hong Kong is about the most open and globalized place on earth, it is still very much a Chinese city. I hear Chinese spoken far more frequently in public than English. The city has a thriving local motion picture and music scene, not because of cultural subsidies and protections, but because of the freedom its people enjoy.

Monday morning’s South China Morning Post, the local English-language daily, featured pictures of anti-globalization protestors, some of them wearing masks and other disguises. I only wish those protestors against free trade would remove their masks, and their ideological blinders, so they could more clearly see the blessings of free trade all around them.

Daniel Griswold is director of the Cato Institute, Center for Trade Policy Studies. He will be filing dispatches this week from Hong Kong, where he is attending the World Trade Organization’s Sixth Ministerial Conference.