A dream city for bureaucrats
SCMP December 1, 2003
The major theme of this column was to have been the government's just-published
"Hong Kong 2030" planning consultation document. However,
I have been sidetracked down one of those dingy alleys where it is difficult
to separate this administration's tendencies towards incompetence, secrecy
In search of the planning document, I took myself to the Government
Publications bookshop in the Queensway. To my surprise, the bookshop
had vanished and there was no indication of its new location.
Inquiries finally directed to me to the Murray Building. There, I had
to fill in forms and receive an entry pass before proceeding to the
fourth floor where I found not a bookshop but a very ordinary government
office where there was nothing on display and only a grubby, out-of-date
catalogue of publications to guide one to access to official information
published and printed at taxpayers' expense.
The Hong Kong 2030 document was not available at all. Why? "Because
it's not on sale". It's free! Forget the fact that the government
bookshop has long been a major distribution point for government information,
free or not. The polite and apologetic staff at the so-called "bookshop"
suggested I go either to a district office or take to the internet.
I was handed a card urging me to "visit Government Bookstore http://bookstore.esdlife.com".
When I called up the site, instead of a government bookstore serving
the public, I found myself at a commercial site run by the chief executive's
favourite firm, Hutchison Whampoa. Even more outrageous, it proved impossible
to access any catalogue of available publications without first registering
not only my name but also a credit card.
Even normal online commercial bookshops such as Amazon do not require
such information until one proceeds to buy a book. But here, a crony
company has been given a special, quasi-monopolistic position to deal
in government publications. Prior registration can only have dubious
I declined the invitation from Hutchison.
The situation cries out for investigation by the Auditor General -
hopefully someone with teeth, not just another member of the bureaucratic
mafia. At the very least, legislators should demand publication of the
terms of the government's deal with Hutchison.
It is true that much information is now available for free on the internet
- including the Hong Kong 2030 paper. But many people need hard copies
of documents. And many government publications, including maps, departmental
reports, marine tables and charts are not suitable for internet delivery.
The fundamental point is that if government information is published
in physical form, it should be available through open government channels,
preferably at a centralised location. As for the document itself, it
can hardly be regarded as likely to stimulate much debate. It is largely
couched in platitudes and "quality of life" generalities.
On the plus side, it acknowledges that Victoria Harbour reclamation
should cease. It also says that, due to Sars, it may be time for a reduction
in plot ratios to reduce development densities.
However, the report is more interesting for what it lacks than what
it contains. First, its population projections are greater than those
previously put out by the government. That has big planning implications,
so it needs better explanation.
The paper fails to note that Hong Kong has a wide measure of control
over its population size for the simple reason that mainland immigration
will account for most of any increase. There is scant use in discussing
how much housing will be needed without first discussing how many people
Hong Kong wants to admit.
It also makes no effort to offer choices in key areas such as transport
and pollution, both vital to the quality of life with which the paper
purports to be most concerned. Transport issues are discussed entirely
in terms of the provision of more roads and railways. There is not a
mention of the possibility of congestion charges, electronic pricing,
cycle paths, zones barred to private cars, and the other measures introduced
in advanced cities to address pollution, efficiency and quality-of-life
issues. Are the planners of "Asia's world city" stuck in a
1960s time warp? Discussion of such options must be part of any serious
The document's authors are certainly guilty of failing to acknowledge
the fact that much of Hong Kong's current blight is due either to failure
to implement established policies, or to change policy in the face of
long-changed circumstances. In the first category is the persistent
failure to prosecute effectively those who despoil the "agricultural"
land of the New Territories with container parks, car breakage yards
and so forth. If the Independent Commission Against Corruption was a
serious organisation, it would stop fussing about policemen who go to
massage parlours, and go after those profiting from the blatantly illegal
use of land.
In the second category is change of zoning to rehabilitate old industrial
areas whose knitting and plastic factories long ago moved across the
border. No prizes for guessing why that has not happened.
Indeed, discussing long-term land needs and uses is pointless if land
policy is actually to be determined by the short-term needs either of
politics, the developers or the budget. Before 1997, land policy was
a function of the Joint Declaration. Since then, it has been largely
a function of the influence of leading developers over the administration.
Hopefully, a public now aroused to look after its own interests rather
than entrust them to the world's highest-paid civil servants will take
the Hong Kong 2030 document as a starting point for action on several
fronts, rather than as a blueprint for the administration to do as it
pleases in the name of "quality of life" sloganeering.
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