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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