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Hong Kong Writer's Notebook

September 1, 1996
Everyone joked with me about the approach and landing at Hong Kong airport. It's like some sort of global fraternity initiation rite. It's precarious; it's fascinating; it's surprising. And, yes, the minutes preceding the landing are a metaphor of what's to come in the city itself.

After hours of ocean, there's a fanfare of islands and landmass heralding one's entrance. Then, just when you're sure it must be time to touch down, the enormous, lumbering airliner tilts and dips through a cleft in the mountains, and like a curtain opening, you see the stacks of buildings—new and ancient, of obvious wealth and poverty—that define Hong Kong. And then, after more air-time, you land, charging almost to the end of the runway and into the harbor before the plane comes to a full stop. Don't worry, though, the plane can't linger there too long because there's one plane after another waiting to take its place.

Welcome to Hong Kong.

Watching the throngs of people moving like the quickened pulse of a person about to launch into a run, I began to realize just how different each Asian country is from the next. The tumult of Hong Kong is completely different from the crush of crowds and harmony of Japan (where I'd lived for two years). I flashed on Singapore and its orderliness, and on the developing countries I'd been to—Indonesia most strikingly. I thought about the hundreds of conversations I've had with global managers, expatriates, expatriate families and local nationals in Europe and the United States. And it became glaringly clear that global managers face astounding challenges every day.

To me, Hong Kong is a microcosm of the increasingly complex global HR issues that will emerge and continue to confront managers. It's a place where good local talent is scarce and self-assured, and able to dictate terms. It's also a place where politics directly affects economics and workplace policies. It's a place where the future promises more restrictions and legalistic guidelines, at the same time that technology guarantees greater access.

The opportunity to be in Hong Kong exactly one year before the hand-over to the Peoples' Republic of China (PRC) presented an opportunity to begin to observe an experiment that's set in a living laboratory. Everywhere, everyone speaks about the same topics: the incredibly fast pace of business, the labor shortage and the impending change. Articles abound in the Asian Wall Street Journal, The Far Eastern Economic Review and the Los Angeles Times, posing questions about just how free the territory will be after July 1, 1997. What will happen to the press? What's the economic outlook? How is employee morale?

Perhaps the Los Angeles Times put it most succinctly: "For China, which built the world's longest wall to isolate itself from the rest of the region, Hong Kong has always been a potentially troublesome door to the outside world.... When China reclaims Hong Kong a year from now, it must deal with the age-old problem of how to keep the door open and the flies out."

Thinking back to the first story I'd written on the globalization of business and its affects on HR ("Transplanting Corporate Culture Globally" in the October 1993 issue of Personnel Journal), I reconfirmed my belief that the pace of international business has quickened and challenges have grown exponentially. Hong Kong is a showcase of that, posing questions today that probe deeply into the future of international human resources issues.

For example, tens of thousands of people have passports. In one day, 16,000 people can line up at the British Embassy for the documents. And all are poised to leave (and join the throngs who have already been part of an exodus), depending on the situation after the hand-over to China. This creates a brain drain, greater competition for labor and a bid-up in salaries. The Sunday edition of South China Morning Post devotes more than 100 pages to want ads begging capable talent! It's scarce and coveted.

Talk is that local people hop companies for a dollar-an-hour increase because there's no reason to stay. There's virtually no company loyalty, no security in what the long-term future holds for the people.

And then there's the vibrant and transient expatriate community that may not hop from job-to-job, but moves in a swirl from continent-to-continent, the best and brightest landing in Hong Kong on even a month's notice and taking up residence for two or three or whatever number of years, because no one can predict the future.

Indeed, it's all there: the anticipation of the adventure and opportunities; the trepidation of the unknown.

Personnel Journal, September 1996, Vol. 75, No. 9, p. 83.