Largely in the hands of big business

SCMP June 13, 2005

Do you believe Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's policy platform? Among other things, he wants to: encourage public participation in politics; ensure that our executive-led government is sensitive and responsive to community views; and adhere to the rule in advisory committee appointments that the appointees come from a wide range of sectors.

Perhaps we should look at what he does. Amid all the 'election' hype, the outpourings of followers and favour-seekers, one recent news item got lost: the composition of the Competition Policy Review Committee, to look at the policy and operations of the Competition Policy Advisory Group.

That sounds boring. Indeed, that is presumably the intention of a government none too keen to have a policy to promote competition. Why do anything to upset the monopolists and oligopolists - especially if they contribute funds (not more than $100,000 each, please) to Mr Tsang's campaign?

One promise made by Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen in his budget speech this year was to set up this review. It was a handy way of delaying the issue. To ensure that it proposes nothing radical, it is now being packed with the usual narrow circle of business and administration interests. Chairman Christopher Cheng Wai-chee is a classic establishment figure - chairman of garment and property interests USI Holdings, on the council of the Trade Development Council, and a member of numerous panels and boards. He is not a man to rock boats. He would have a hard time even if he tried.

Prominent on his committee is Andrew Brandler, group managing director of CLP Holdings, Hong Kong's largest private monopoly. Mr Brandler would not be serving his company and its shareholders if he did not do his best to defend its interests, which surely exclude allowing competition in the power business. He should be giving evidence to the committee. To include him on the jury is outrageous.

Others include former attorney-general John Griffiths, a member of that cosy club, the Bar Association; Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen, of the Hong Kong Federation of Industries; William Fung Kwok-lun, group managing director of Hong Kong's largest listed trading firm, Li & Fung; and Frederick Lam Tin-fuk, executive director of that classic quango, the Trade Development Council.

There is also Consumer Council chairman Andrew Chan Chi-fai, and two other members, plus a couple of legislators. But add in the four representatives of government departments, and one has a group lacking the 'wide range of sectors' promised by Mr Tsang. Where are the small businesses - restaurants, hairdressers, ad agencies, and the like - or grass-roots consumers?

Of course, no one should be surprised by all this unfamiliarity with competition. Just last week, the Port of Singapore Authority gave up trying to challenge the local duopoly and joined it. The Tang family business (Peninsula Knitters) thrived for years on selling its garment quotas or using them for mainland manufactured goods. Tung Chee-hwa was from a business notorious for having avoided most of the rules of world trade - shipping.

The senior bureaucracy is a bastion of uncompetitive behaviour, enjoying huge salaries, assured pensions and additional money-making opportunities. It is long past time that the new rules on post-retirement jobs proposed for the chief executive were applied to senior civil servants. Hong Kong's failure to protect competition and the consumer has long been a subject of international criticism. Competition policy should be high on the agenda of any government that wants to stimulate the economy and protect the public interest. But cronyism and collusion between government and big business look set to thrive under Mr Tsang.




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