And so Hong Kong, with its future in China settled 12 years before 1997, frittered away a decade – even though it had the opportunity to establish Mandarin in the school curriculum soon after 1984 – instead of seizing the opportunity to prepare a new generation of children right from Primary 1.
Beijing, itself not always a stellar performer in picking up the scent, stood by while China's coal industry claimed world records for mining deaths year after year. Only with the arrival of the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao leadership did it slowly wake up to the enormity of this ongoing tragedy.
To be fair, China has been better at acting on cues since the arrival of President Hu and Premier Wen. Action on SARS was lightning quick, compared to Beijing's years of denial over HIV/AIDS in China, although the SARS situation might have blown up into a national catastrophe overnight were it not. While we're on it, the new leadership can also be credited with finally recognizing the depth of the AIDS crisis.
Beijing is better about recognizing realities, and commensurately better at dealing with them. But it could always be faster. The same could be said for the rest of the world, especially member countries of the World Trade Organization – who seem to have fallen into a trance of bewilderment over China's soaring textile and garment exports.
Clearly, their trade representatives were not shopping at Wal-Mart. China's meteoric rise in textiles and garments has been transparently evident for years. Equally, they have not been very up to speed on the minutes of their own WTO meetings. As Pascal Lamy, the candidate almost certain to be become next director general of the WTO in September, told the Financial Times last month, countries that contemplated emergency curbs on Chinese textile exports only flirted with hypocrisy. Western economies could hardly complain they were facing a crisis when, as the FT report put it, "they had been given 10 years to prepare for the worldwide lifting of quotas."
Looking ahead: EU's new trade chief
Lamy, until last November the European Union's trade commissioner, became the odds-on favorite to take the top trade job when his strongest competitor, Carlos P?rez del Castillo of Uruguay, pulled out of the race. In fact, in terms of the textile debate, both candidates stood the same ground, the Uruguayan having voiced the same complaint. If he gets the DG job, which will be known by the time our June issue appears, Lamy will have his hands full trying to prevent curbs from being applied. The government of his own native France has repeatedly called on the EU to restrict Chinese imports, just as members of the US Congress have.
He would come to the job with quirky credentials. As EU trade commissioner, he battled ferociously on behalf of Airbus when Boeing accused the company of selling aircraft with the help of government subsidies in contravention of the rules.
In his new role Lamy will have to be ferociously neutral the moment his four-year term begins September 1, assuming he is the final choice. Undoubtedly he knows this – judging from his reaction to the explosive textile issue, he has a knack for seeing what's around the corner.