Hong Kong Leader's Bad Week Gets Worse
By Keith B. Richburg
The bad news started early, from the opening bell at the stock exchange, as share prices resumed their southbound journey, ending the day down nearly 4 percent in a fall analysts said is likely to continue.
Then, later in the day, some 200 angry clients of a failed brokerage firm, CA Pacific Securities Ltd., protested loudly outside Tung's office, blaming the government for not protecting their investments and demanding they be compensated for their lost shares. When Tung emerged to address the crowd, he was largely drowned out by their shouts.
And just as Hong Kongers were starting to think it might be safe once again to eat chicken -- following a recent outbreak of avian flu that forced a slaughter of local poultry -- a new scare erupted with a government announcement that more than 100 hospital patients were given a fluid that may have been contaminated with the human variant of "mad cow" disease.
Hospital Authority officials said that between July and December, 111 patients with heart and lung problems went to six local hospitals and, as part of a medical test, received injections of a fluid suspected of being contaminated with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, or CJD, a degenerative disease of the nervous system that is the human equivalent of "mad cow" disease. Authorities said seven of the patients have died, but it was unclear if CJD was the cause.
Ko Wing-man, deputy director of the authority, said patients' chances of developing the disease are "extremely remote."
To top off the growing list of local concerns, the Agriculture and Fisheries Department issued new guidelines today warning Hong Kong residents about the risk of poisoning from certain coral reef fish that it said might contain deadly ciguatoxin.
The problems are all adding up to what local newspapers here have dubbed a "crisis of confidence" in the territory. To address just one aspect of the growing headaches here -- a dramatic drop-off in tourism that has hammered the economy since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control last July -- a top official of the Tourist Association suggested a novel approach: Hong Kong residents should learn to be nicer.
"Our research tells us a strong impediment to visitor growth is the perception that we sometimes treat visitors rudely, cheat them and are unfriendly and unhelpful," tourist association chief Amy Chan said in a speech. She unveiled a new campaign to persuade locals to be more courteous.
Hong Kong's myriad troubles come at a time when the new Chinese-led government had hoped to tackle more mundane "livelihood" issues, such as expanding the number of affordable apartments and upgrading the quality of schools.
Heading public concern is the economy. Hong Kong so far has managed to avoid the financial meltdown that has afflicted most of the region, and its currency remains the last one in Asia with its exchange rate pegged to the U.S. dollar. But that has come at a huge cost, with interest rates spiraling upward -- making home mortgages more costly -- and businesses, particularly property firms, feeling the pinch.
A sell-off in property stocks led to today's stock market bruising that saw shares fall 3.93 percent, to close at 8,883.73. Market analysts said the losses reflected continuing concern over the deepening economic crisis in Indonesia, but also homegrown factors -- such as the collapse of the CA Pacific group, high interest rates, the fear of more corporate failures here and worries about renewed pressure on the Hong Kong dollar.
"If the high interest rates continue, you might start to see some bankruptcies in Hong Kong," said Patrick Chia, a researcher with China Everbright Securities (HK) Ltd.
James Osborn, head of sales here for Barings Securities Ltd., said that with the slowdown in property sales and mortgage rates reaching 30 percent, prospects look bleak. "There's a lot further to go and a lot more pain to be taken," he said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company