Black clouds

Vested interests and cosy arrangements with government can be public health hazards

SCMP June 18, 2008


The subjugation of public health issues to political posturing and narrow interest group pressures is increasingly confronting societies, democratic or not. For an example of emotion drummed up by opposition groups, and appealing to the lowest common denominator of xenophobia, take a look at the demonstrations in South Korea against imports of US beef which have forced the cabinet to offer to resign and put huge pressure on President Lee Myung-bak.
Although the beef has been declared safe by the World Health Organisation and is not barred anywhere else, the Koreans - who expect the rest of the world to buy their electronics and ships - work themselves into a hysteria over supposed threats of mad cow disease. Likewise, much of Europe continues to ban genetically modified crops on the basis of the demands of emotive pressure groups rather than scientific data.

But misplaced emotion-based exaggerations of health threats are at least preferable to the deliberate refusal to tackle known threats resulting from the pressures of trade interest groups. Generally, Hong Kong has had a good record of putting public interests first, enabling it thus far to stamp out bird flu outbreaks and limit the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome. However, the pressure from business interest groups with the ear of the government is clearly a threat.

Take the issue of the endless delays in the establishment of a central slaughtering facility, which was originally planned for last year but has twice been delayed and now will not be in place for at least another three years. There could be few better sources than the former secretary for health, welfare and food, Yeoh Eng-kiong, for pointing to where the blame lies. He was quoted in the South China Morning Post (SEHK: 0583, announcements, news) last week as saying that "public policies were always difficult to implement in a political system with functional constituencies, which places the concerns of trade groups before public health". In a full democracy, he said, lawmakers focused more on individual rights and health.

Think of those words: a stunning indictment of the political system at a time when, globally, issues of the environment, pollution, public health, resource depletion and chronic diseases are at, or near, the top of the agenda, from China to Sweden. It is a stunning indictment of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's regime at a time when Hong Kong's top microbiologists are all urging immediate action.

But the bird flu threat is nothing compared to the daily impact of polluted air on the people of Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta, as detailed in a recent Civic Exchange report. Apart from the immediate impact, particularly on the very young and very old, the cost in terms of hospital and doctor attendance, and the like, there are the immeasurable longer-term costs in terms of cancers and pulmonary diseases that come from continued exposure to poor air.

But a government in league with business interests in the Legislative Council - and with over-close links to conglomerates that both benefit from a lack of attention to public health issues and provide cosy jobs to former government officials - avoids acting in the broader public interest. Its cowardice even applies to such near-defunct industries as fishing. A lack of controls has resulted in the near-complete devastation of marine life even as the mainland strives to prevent overfishing to ensure its longer-term survival.

And, of course, it extends to those many businesses represented by the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce which rely heavily on monopolies, oligopolies and other cosy arrangements with government for their profits. The attitudes of some of them are stunning. The chamber's chairman, Andrew Brandler, was quoted only this week in the Post complaining about Hong Kong departing from laisser-faire and being subject to "increased regulation and populism". This from the chief executive of CLP Holdings (SEHK: 0002), one of the world's most profitable government-granted monopolies - net profit last year of HK$10.6 billion - yet which continues to put private profit ahead of public health by increasing reliance on coal. The claim that Hongkong Electric (SEHK: 0006) is a worse polluter than CLP Power and has much higher power costs is no defence. It merely shows the even greater sway of its owner over the government.

Despite the evidence of the power station contributions, Mr Brandler puts the blame for local pollution on others - Guangdong and marine traffic, for example - all of which are real enough issues, but no excuse for CLP Power. Mr Brandler complains about populism, but it is the main force pressuring the government to clean up his company's power stations and cut its monopoly profits - or subject them to competition from the mainland, a lack of which makes a mockery of the free trade goals of the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement. He proves Dr Yeoh's point.





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