Hong Kong's secret strength

Chris Burford cburford at gn.apc.org
Tue Jul 28 23:26:06 PDT 1998

Very many thanks to Michael Hoover for the fascinating information. For several years I have been wondering whether my amiable friend in the cooperative movement was eccentric or whether he had a point underneath the way he kept banging on about Hong Kong.

I think these exchanges do demonstrate that Hong Kong is an anomaly in more than one way. Certainly it has had the great advantage for capitalist accumulation of large inward migration of a vast surplus army of labour. But I think the information Michael gives does confirm that tight control over finances probably has contributed to the ability of the Hong Kong dollar to avoid devalutation in the current Asian crisis.

More interestingly it confirms that a highly competitive position in the global capitalist economy is possible without the private ownership of land. Clearly this was not introduced for socialist reasons but for imperialist reasons, and I see no reason to contest Michael's observation about the great class differences in housing, although presumably without also the major housing programme he describes, many more of the population would be living in the equivalent of barrios.

I am pointing out that while socialists cannot expect to control the market in commodities overnight, there is room for serious exploration of ideas of bringing finance under greater social control and of bringing land under greater social control, challenging or even abolishing bourgeois right to the private ownership of land. Certainly it seems that the example of Hong Kong may make it easier in the People's Republic of China whatever other market reforms are under discussion, to resist the idea of the privatisation of land.

There was one detail of the Hong Kong system that I have not been able to confirm, and which I cannot pin my cooperative movement friend down about: the idea that the social ownership of land provides counter-cyclical methods of managing the capitalist economy.

It seems to be that since there is no private market in the ownership of land, the auction price of leases for land that comes onto the market, may rise of fall promptly according to market demand. Therefore when the capitalist cycle is slack, the marginal cost of leasing a bit of land is much lower, and cushions the prospects of starting up new economic activity. In a way this is a reserve army of land. In formal marxist terms I submit that it allows the ready destruction of a portion of capital, that represented in the capital value of the leases for new land, to be discounted promptly in a recession. As the destruction of a proportion of capital is virtually essential in any recession for the economy to get going again, this provides a speedy and flexible means of doing so that is directly relevant for economic activity.

Adapting this reform for different countries, would require complex debate, but seems to me to have the possibility of attracting support from a wide range of classes and interests, and not be objectionable to industrial and commercial capitalists. In Britain there is a Labour Land Reform Campaign.

Chris Burford


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