Spotlight: Freedom-Oriented Expresser


Hong Kong is a name that immediately conjures up visions of business. The tiny island off the coast of the world's largest Communist country ranks 18th among the world's nations in exports. Business news is obviously an important commodity in the British colony. It may be a little surprising to find a REASON reader in the role of business news editor of the largest English-speaking paper in Asia. It is very surprising to find a woman in that position.

Hong Kong is not a feminist paradise. Asia has been significantly slower than the West to accept women into the ranks of business. But Dende Montilla (pronounced den'd? mon t?l'ya) has become something of a celebrity as the premier purveyor of business news in a country that has no natural resources to speak of except entrepreneurs and hard workers.

Born in the Philippines, Montilla did her postgraduate work in journalism at Marquette University in Milwaukee as a Rotary Foundation fellow. She went on to work at the Manila Chronicle in a variety of positions, including coverage of crime and politics before martial law made a sham of political reporting. She even served a stint as assistant editor of the paper's Women and Home magazine, though she has never married and exclaims, "I could not cook to save my life!"

In 1969, she met a young American while covering an advertising convention in Hong Kong. He proposed that she come to work in Hong Kong, but Montilla dismissed him as a big-talking American until he wrote to her on the letterhead of the Hong Kong Standard and asked her to set up either a women's section or a business section for the newspaper. She opted for business and became Asia's first woman editor for a major publication.

Acceptance was slow for Montilla, who laughs that she still meets people who automatically decide that a woman in Asian journalism must write about recipes and fashion. After five years at the Standard, she left her baby—the business section of that paper—and accepted the business news editorship of the prestigious South China Morning Post.

On a first-name basis not only with Hong Kong's business leaders but with Communist China's business and policy leaders, Montilla is in the unique position to see developing policies that will profoundly affect the future of Hong Kong now that the British lease on the island is up for renegotiation. Unfortunately, she does not have any favorable predictions to make. She is not convinced by Chinese assurances that the residents of Hong Kong have nothing to worry about.

Though the Chinese are scrambling to learn about business, they are handicapped, she says, by years of central planning. The business leaders of Hong Kong today are mostly Chinese, but they immigrated before the Communists changed the relatively free pre-1949 China into the disastrous land of the Cultural Revolution. Unlearning Chairman Mao's wisdom is difficult, and the journalist points out that this generation of Chinese immigrants is so used to having decisions made for them that few are able to adjust to the daily choices necessary for success in the hectic, ever-changing world of Hong Kong business.

The Chinese threat to Hong Kong's free enterprise weighs heavily on the people there, but there is as much fear that the current protectionist trends in the European Common Market and the United States could cripple the exporting nation. The two factors have combined to contribute to a modest 4 percent rate of real growth in the Hong Kong economy, down from the usual 10 percent growth rate. It is the middle class that is really worried, Montilla says. There are fears that the Chinese will change the benevolent tax structure. (The maximum personal tax is 15 percent; businesses pay only a little more; and there are very few indirect taxes.) Increased taxes and trade restrictions are a terror to a people who, she says, revere Milton Friedman as the unofficial patron saint of their island.

Ms. Montilla suggests that the colonial status of the island has been a boon because political avenues of attaining wealth were simply not available. "Business is all we've got," she says, "so that is where people put their energies." She speculates that the constitutional restraints on government intervention, honored during the first part of our history and thus facilitating America's successful free-enterprise system, are analogous to the effects of living under the benign neglect of the British.

America could learn a great deal from the history of Hong Kong, according to Montilla. She faults the US government for protecting weak industries at the expense of more efficient industries that could be more competitive in the world market. But she does think that the United States has it over Hong Kong in terms of exporting a philosophy of individual rights. "In a way, the whole island is a free-market think tank. We live it and breathe it. But we don't think much about it." So Hong Kong, she suggests, should do more "to export the philosophy and policies more aggressively."

Hong Kong is proof that a relatively unencumbered market allows people to succeed, and Dende Montilla is proof that anyone, even a woman in the man's world of Asian business and journalism, can make it if she really wants to. It is nice to know that a REASON reader is setting editorial policy at the largest English-speaking paper in Asia. It is especially interesting to note that it is the number-one business paper in China itself, and Dende Montilla is at work sending her message into the heart of the largest nation in the world.

Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer and a frequent guest columnist for USA Today.