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 and cronyism.
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I found not a bookshop but a very ordinary government office where there was nothing on display and only a grubby, out-of-date catalogue of publications to guide one to access to official information published and printed at taxpayers' expense.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".

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 commercial motives.

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 planning process.

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.



E-mail me 
IHT Articles 
Other Articles