Braced against the winds of change

SCMP March 20, 2006

Our self-regarding bureaucracy likes to imagine that a lack of democracy somehow brings more efficient, decisive government. That is a conceit shared by authoritarian governments everywhere, but it seldom stands up to scrutiny. The record shows that elected governments are far less likely than unelected ones to defend the status quo.

As an open society, where people can have at least some idea of the government's failures, cover-ups in Hong Kong are relatively difficult. But entrenched bureaucracies are seldom a force for change. Events at the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation show how averse to scrutiny was the management of former civil servants.

It was the same in colonial times. Changes happened either in response to civil disturbances - such as the 1966 Star Ferry riots - or because London sent governors such as Murray MacLehose and Chris Patten, who were not beholden to the received wisdom of colonial officials and business interests in the legislative or executive councils.

Consider for a moment what has happened elsewhere in our region. Taiwan once had some of the most polluted air and water in Asia. That was the result of collusion between the Kuomintang and the bureaucracy that it dominated - and business interests, which owned the chemical, plastics and textile factories polluting the countryside.

It took the emergence of democratic institutions in Taiwan to force the government to realise that the people at large were often more interested in health and environmental issues than in enhancing gross domestic product at any cost.

It was the same in South Korea, where democracy and the cleansing of the environment went hand in hand: that was for the very good reason that what is good for business profits is not necessarily good for the community at large.

The mayor of Seoul, Lee Myung-bak, has strengthened his popularity by greening the city and tearing down the concrete structures he had previously put up as an executive with Hyundai Construction.

It has been the same in older democracies. Where would California be now, without the success of popular campaigns against the interests of oil and car companies, which fiercely resisted safety and anti-pollution measures. Where would densely populated Japan and western Europe be without the popular demands for commitments to cleaner air and water, and to the recycling of waste?

Hong Kong has been lucky in that the textile, plastics and electronics industries that used to pollute the city moved of their own accord to the mainland. The transition to a service economy has saved it from having to face severe clashes of environmental versus business interests.

But, on the issues that remain, officials have been almost immobile. Only in a state where they think they - rather than an elected government - control the bureaucracy, could the senior executives of Hongkong Electric, and CLP Power, get away with their crude threats - saying proposed changes in power franchises are unacceptable. Let them sell up here and decamp entirely to Australia and Britain, where permitted returns from regulated utilities are in the single digits and emissions controls are much tighter.

Likewise, as Russell Barling in this paper has frequently pointed out, the shippers who are the lifeblood of Hong Kong's re-export business remain at the mercy of an untransparent cartel of port operators and shipping lines. The bureaucrats who are so efficient at imposing taxes on maids do not lift a finger against these abuses. Are they frightened? Or waiting for their post-retirement jobs with the one or other of the conglomerates which dominates power, retailing, ports and so forth.

One thing is for sure: this sleaze - a huge burden on the rest of the economy - in large part survives because of the lack of democracy.




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