SCMP June 30 2009
The list of ideas for revitalising the Hong Kong economy, the product
of Donald Tsang's Yam-kuen's Task Force on Economic Challenges, made
depressing reading for two reasons. First, the good ideas in it have
been bandied around for years without being implemented. Second, the
assumption is that the government should do more, rather than less,
to stimulate desired sectors.
Between 1999 and 2002, I participated in annual off-the-record forums
titled 'The Servicing Economy' bringing together the government, business,
consultants and academics in discussions about spurring high-value-added
services in Hong Kong. Some of the sessions were interesting and showed
up ways in which relatively small changes in policy could have a potentially
Yet, regular attendees gradually became frustrated. The report for
2002 noted that, although certain issues were repeatedly raised, 'action
by government was painfully slow due to bureaucratic inertia and vested
That year, health care got particular attention from the perspective
of both local needs to narrow the gap between the public and private
sectors and of the potential to develop Hong Kong as a medical tourist
centre by encouraging private hospital development. Seven years on,
the government has taken this up - but only in principle and assuming
that vested interests who want to limit competition do not stall the
Education, secondary as well as tertiary, was another perennial at
the forums. Since then, there has been only a very modest rise in non-local
university enrolment; the public universities remain very high-cost,
highly bureaucratic institutions; and private secondary education has
attracted very few students from overseas.
Another issued raised at the forums was getting the right migrants
from the mainland. While a few very highly qualified people are allowed
in, the vast majority of the daily quota are unskilled and unsuitable
for the jobs Hong Kong should be creating. So, many end up in remote
estates unemployed or in low-paid jobs. Meanwhile, tens of thousands
of skilled mainlanders able to contribute their talents cannot come.
Why is migration not a topic that can be discussed?
The government is now acknowledging that high land cost is a major
problem - but not just for schools and hospitals. Yet it persists in
trying to maximise land revenue, not merely by limiting land sales
and indulging in a pretence of market forces, but through policies
that hinder revival of old industrial areas. Now we are told that it
would be good to 'facilitate the conversion of underused industrial
buildings for the cultural and creative industries'. Why only them?
And what is the definition of 'creative'?
While its policies hinder better land use, we are now told that the
government should be more involved in handouts to a favoured few chosen
by the bureaucrats. Thus, Mr Tsang's announcement was followed by Secretary
for Commerce and Economic Development Rita Lau Ng Wai-lan's article
in this newspaper lauding Cyberport as an example of government investment
in research and development. Has she no sense of irony?
The government is also now to 'explore the use of financial and policy
incentives to encourage more R&D in the private sector'. Meanwhile,
there is already HK$4.6 billion sitting unused in the Innovation and
Officials like to show increased budget spending then cannot, or will
not, find viable projects. One wonders how much money is being spent
on the civil servants, few of whom have any experience either of innovation
or entrepreneurship, administering these schemes and writing platitudes
about how to be a leader in R&D.
Now we have another bureaucrat's boondoggle, CreateHK, to add to the
other bureaucracies that take public money away from those who really
need it (the elderly and young families), and the self-assuming bureaucracies
who talk of being creative but allow heritage to be destroyed and the
countryside to be despoiled because they dare not stand up to New Territories
power interests and enforce the law.
The government's proposals make more gestures towards the environment
but fail to address the big pollution issues head on. Who cares whether
the government changes its light bulbs or 'expands the scope of green
procurement' (whatever that means) while refusing to spend real money
on reducing emissions, for fear of courting the wrath of vested interests?
TOP OF THE PAGE