Tsang should spare us his concrete suggestions

SCMP October 8 2008

'Penny wise, pound foolish' is as charitable a description as could be put on the spending habits of the concrete-headed Tsang government. But there seems limited chance that the new Legislative Council will provide much of a brake on an administration which displays Scrooge-like meanness to the old but will happily commit billions of dollars of public money to projects that sound nice or are politically expedient, without any regard to their economic viability.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, whose knowledge of commerce seems to have been learned in the 1960s police environment in which he grew up, is adept at following the Soviet economic model of spending public money on building monuments rather than investing in viable projects or improving residents' quality of life.

The latest example is the Kai Tak giant cruise terminal which, unless legislators have the sense to reject it, will cost at least HK$7 billion, excluding the value of this prime land - another few billion dollars. Developers have walked away from the project, having studied the demand and likely rate of return. A government that, for 11 years, has been unable to decide on any projects for the site is now rushing to spend on one that combines the worst of all worlds: the occupation of one of Hong Kong's last prime harbourside sites and a lack of any detailed justification.

We are told the cruise industry wants it - not whether it is prepared to pay an economic price. Though the terminal might not be commercially viable, it is 'necessary for the economy'. But the government's figures - HK$2.5 billion of economic benefit per year - are as bogus as those used to justify Disneyland.

A few thousand cruise passengers a year, who spend most of their money on board, not in hotels and restaurants, do not add up to economic justification. Instead, look to the special pleading of the cruise and tourism groups that sit on untransparent consultancy panels.

We are told that we must have one because Shanghai and Singapore will have one and maybe Shenzhen, too. As for Shenzhen and other nearby mainland cities, a vast oversupply of ports is already looming.

Which brings us to the matter of the Macau-Zhuhai bridge, another project supposed to have been privately financed but now to be shouldered by governments. Why? At least partly because Pearl River Delta port expansion means that there will never be a container terminal on Lantau. But, the bridge is politically expedient, as well as providing work for contractors - like the even more useless Stonecutters bridge now being built.

Next on Mr Tsang's list of wasteful, politically driven projects is the HK$30 billion Chek Lap Kok-Shenzhen airport rail link. A Chinese University study shows that, even at HK$400 a trip, the rate of return would be tiny. But do not expect that to get in the way of a government frittering away reserves on monuments rather than returning them to where they belong - the people.

However, do not expect Legco to do much. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong's Chan Kam-lam is justifying the cruise terminal as 'a confidence boost in the face of the financial tsunami'. The Civic Party's Ronny Tong Ka-wah, for some unspecified reason, thinks it is 'appropriate' for the government to build it.

Claims are made for this, as for other public works projects, on the grounds of job-creation, as though spending the money in other ways would not do so. This is not about job creation. Like Japan's massive spending on six-lane highways in remote countryside, it is about ruling-party politics and special interests, two things Mr Tsang understands.

Mr Tsang has obviously learned nothing from the previous multibillion-dollar government-sponsored investment disasters over which he has presided - Cyberport, Disneyland, the West Kowloon Cultural District and the Science Park.




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