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Hong Kong inheritance: the arts and higher education.

CHRIS Patten, after appointment as Governor of Hong Kong, was reported to have said that China was getting the best inheritance since Cleopatra. It certainly is one that could not have been predicted in, say, 1948/49 when Mao swept across China to take power, and to this day an inheritance a lot better than probably most people in Britain realise. I have just returned from a short visit, the second since leaving in 1983, and can certify that the place is as electric, ebullient, and downright successful (and as noisy) as it has ever been. The economy, now inextricably entangled with that of Guangdong Province and through that province with that of the rest of China, is expanding rapidly and the gains of that expansion are being spread into the public sector generally. Expenditure on social welfare, for example, is expected to grow by over 25 per cent over the next four years, and that on health by nearly the same amount. Nor are they starting from a low base -- primary health care delivery has for some time been better than that in Britain, with the infant mortality rate in 1990 at 5.9 in Hong Kong and 7.9 in Britain, and the expectation of life, despite the incursion of so many refugees, 74.6 for men and 80.3 for women in Hong Kong as compared with 72.4 for men and 78.0 for women in Britain. The crude facts of the Hong Kong inheritance for China can easily be garnered from the massive report produced each year by the Hong Kong Government; but two areas, the arts and higher education, in which I happen to have some first-hand knowledge, may be of interest.

The popular gibe thirty years ago was that Hong Kong was a cultural desert, a gibe that could never be true as long as the place was 98 per cent Chinese. The Chinese are perhaps the most culturally conscious people on earth. What Hong Kong was until about fifteen years ago was a place deprived of cultural facilities, mainly because the mostly expatriate ruling elite grossly underestimated popular interest in the arts.

When I first arrived there in the autumn of 1967 it was a city of about five million with one theatre of 463 seats, one concert hall with 1,476 seats, two small lecture/committee rooms available for public use, and a small, not very well equipped exhibition area. There were no professional performing arts groups of any sort. It was dismay over this lack of facilities that led me and a few others to start the Arts Centre project, a project which even before it opened in the autumn of 1977 acted as the trigger for a development of arts facilities unequalled in the world.

Hong Kong today, with a population still barely six million, instead of two facilities with a total of 1,939 seats and no professional companies, has acquired in less than twenty years 14 multi-purpose venues with 15,596 seats, a further 14 performing arts venues, three professional drama companies, three professional dance companies, and two professional orchestras, both up to international recording standards. And still in the lead, chronologically and artistically, and still operating, as it started, without any subsidy from public funds, is the Hong Kong Arts Centre. The very fact that I can quote figures like these is itself a tribute to the Arts Centre, because they are no more than tit-bits taken from the 400-page Hong Kong Arts Directory, produced by the Hong Kong Arts Resource and Information Centre, which is an off-shoot of the Centre and based in the Centre.

The peculiarity and strength of the Centre is that it is an independent organisation operating without public subsidy, sometimes with difficulty but always with success. 1991/92 was one of the more successful years, and the audited accounts show an operating surplus of over 12 per cent, and liquid reserves of over 32 per cent, of the year's expenditure of roughly HK$32 1/2m (about |pounds~2.6m at current exchange rates). How on earth, it may be asked, can an arts centre produce figures like that?

The answer is that it was planned, designed, and built that way. It was planned as an organisation owning a building in which there would be enough revenue-producing areas (mainly but not exclusively offices) to counter-balance the revenue-losing areas of art galleries, experimental theatres and the like; and that the promoters kept their nerve and finished the building as planned instead of stopping half way and accepting some form of patronage to cover losses. The first ten years were difficult, because the Government had inserted a clause in the lease requiring lettings to be only to arts-related bodies, most of which were unable to pay a full commercial rent; but once the Centre was established as a major part of the Hong Kong arts landscape this was abandoned, and although most of the tenants still have at least some tenuous connection with the arts many of them are able to pay a commercial rent. In 1991/92 the combination of box office and auditoria hire charges produced 28 per cent of the revenue, but this was comfortably out-distanced by the 40 per cent from rents. It is a system which works, although there is always a struggle for sponsorship funds for particular events, which amounted to a little over 10 per cent of revenue for the same year.

After some initial difficulties the Centre was offered a site in February 1972. A month before that it held the first of its arts exhibitions in borrowed premises, running for a month and the first of six a year held for five years, and shortly after that the idea of an annual Hong Kong Arts Festival began to gain ground. Under a mixture of commercial and Government sponsorship that took off in 1973, and was followed a few years later by the biennial Hong Kong Festival of Asian Arts. There are now, including these two, some seventeen festivals listed, the other major one being the Hong Kong International Film Festival, started in 1977, the year in which the Arts Centre was completed and opened its doors.

Ten years after the Arts Centre opening the explosion was well under way. The Government sponsored Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, with its six venues, 2,418 seats and full range of courses, had been finished and opened, the Shatin Town Hall in the New Territories with two major venues and 1,700 seats plus dance studio, music studio and exhibition area had been completed, similar facilities at Tuen Mun and Tsuen Wan were under construction, the Academic Community Hall at the Baptist College with its single 1,346-seat auditorium was open, the Cultural Centre at Tsim Sha Tsui was near completion with its three main venues totalling 4,343 seats, and a host of other schemes were completed or under development. Five years on again in 1992 building and initial development works for the arts have been completed, and consolidation and new developments are the order of the day. As far as cultural facilities are concerned Hong Kong is now more like a honey-pot than a desert.

More or less parallel with this development of the arts have been equivalent developments in education and especially higher education, but in this case they have been funded almost wholly by the Government, and the major driving force has been the Government-appointed but independent University and Polytechnic Grants Committee (UPGC) of Hong Kong. This was formally established towards the end of 1965, but did not produce its first grant recommendations until 1967. At that stage it was still simply the University Grants Committee with a brief to look after the relatively old University of Hong Kong (HKU) founded in 1912 on the base of a medical school founded in 1887, plus the newly formed Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) then scattered over four different sites but about to start work on a large new site beyond Shatin in the New Territories. In 1967 there were at the two universities a total of 6,855 first-degree students and 495 post-graduates; the total Government recurrent expenditure on them was HK$30.6m and the capital expenditure HK$3.6m (about |pounds~1.9m and |pounds~225,000 at the 1967 rates of exchange).

The Committee took the lead in recommending and then helping to plan a modern Polytechnic, which came into being in 1972, and the Committee was expanded to become the UPGC, responsible for two universities and a polytechnic with common systems for dealing with recurrent and capital programmes. At the beginning of the seventies it had also set up a system for student finance with a mixture of grants and loans, controlled through the UPGC office.

By the end of the seventies the two new institutions (CUHK and the Polytechnic) were up and running on their new campuses, the Polytechnic was offering a range of degree courses as well as sub-degree courses, the old Medical School at HKU had been expanded and a large Dental School added, a Medical School had been added to CUHK, and a second Polytechnic was being planned.

The position in 1992 is that the UPGC funds a total of seven institutions, the two original universities, two polytechnics, a third university (the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology), and two post-secondary colleges, the larger of which offers degree courses. The total recurrent cost (excluding student finance, which by then had been hived off to a separate body) in 1991/92 was a little over HK$4,000m (about |pounds~320m), and capital expenditure HK$1,900m (about |pounds~152m). There are 27,750 first-degree students (5,377 of them part-time) and about 2,300 students, many of them also part-time. The total student head-count in tertiary-level institutions was about 55,000. In addition the Government in 1991 set up a Research Grants Council, developed from a UPGC Research Sub-committee, with funding of HK$100m in 1991/92, rising to HK$144m in 1994/95 and with a total commitment over the four years of HK$510m (about |pounds~41m).

For a city of under six million people this is pretty good going. The fact is that the People's Republic of China is unarguably getting a bargain. The British have little choice about handing it over, because Hong Kong is not viable without the New Territories lease, which expires in 1997. Whether more than a tiny handful of British people understand just how much of a bargain they are handing over is doubtful, and perhaps no longer matters very much. What now matters is that the rulers of the People's Republic should understand the nature of what they are going to inherit on 1 July 1997, and this is still not clear.

|S. F. Bailey, CBE, was Secretary of the University and Polytechnic Grants Committee of Hong Kong from 1967 to 1980, and then Secretary to Council at the Hong Kong Polytechnic until 1983; and he was Founder Member and Chairman of the Committee of the Hong Kong Arts Centre from 1969 to 1980.~
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Author:Bailey, S.F.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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