Bureaucratic barriers to greatness

SCMP December 4, 2006

The ignorance and complacency of the chief bureaucrat on pollution was displayed last week, when Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen defended Hong Kong's air quality. But that was just the most glaring example of how bureaucratic attitudes stand in the way of Hong Kong actually earning its self-awarded designation as Asia's 'world city'.

The government announced last week that Bangladesh nationals would require a visa to enter Hong Kong, starting on December 11. This administration's officials seem to take the view that Bangladesh is 'a far-away country of which we know nothing'. Hence, for them, it's of no consequence to end the visa-free access Bangladeshis have enjoyed, as a result of a reciprocal agreement. Now Hong Hong passport holders will almost certainly have to get visas for Bangladesh.

This is a fine way to reward Bangladesh for the fact that it did not require visas of Hong Kong passport holders, though it does of many other nationalities including Britons, Australians and Americans. It is clear that our bureaucrats know little of the world of commerce that is Hong Kong's lifeblood.

Bangladesh is a major player in the global textile and garment business, so much of which is organised from Hong Kong. The ending of the Multifibre Arrangement (MFA) last year has enhanced the role of both China and Bangladesh in this trade.

That has been the main reason why, for years, Dragonair and Bangladesh Biman Airlines have between them operated seven direct flights a week between Hong Kong and Dhaka. One might also think that Asia's 'world city' would like to attract tourism and service business from a nation of 130 million people - the seventh most populous in the world.

The reason given for ending visa-free access is that Bangladeshis are sneaking in to work illegally. But that applies also to people of other nationalities who are not required to have visas. Anyway, the employment of illegals is a problem caused more by employer demand than the supply. The same bureaucrats who want to punish Bangladeshis show less enthusiasm for pursuing employers. That is especially true when the beneficiaries, hiding behind a string of sub-contractors, are the same companies that have the administration in their pockets.

Which brings me to my topic of a month ago: the ugly environment and lack of eating facilities at Repulse Bay beach - marred by the six-year-old scar of a development site at one end and the empty, government-owned Seaview Building at the other. The Leisure and Cultural Services Department says the Seaview's restaurant was closed early last year when repossessed by the government, following a dispute with the former licensee.

It was not being reopened because 'the building was built over 50 years ago and the interior has seriously deteriorated'. Hence, 'redeveloping this scenic site by the private sector [will] better develop the tourism potential'. What an extraordinary statement! So, 50 years is too much for a building when it is allowed by official neglect to deteriorate to the point where it is said to be unusable. As a result, private developers must be given the opportunity to exploit it at some future date when the bureaucracy has enough incentive to come to a decision.

Meanwhile, the Emperor Group's development at the other end of the beach is a classic example of how private developers bend so-called 'principles' of government. Under the outline zoning plan, the site was restricted to three storeys. Emperor's plans for a five-storey building were accordingly rejected by the Planning Department.

But, thanks to one of those curious little ambiguities that occur all too often in the wording of government documents relating to land, the Planning Department and the zoning plan were overruled by an appeal tribunal in March. Thus, the Emperor Group - free to scar the beachfront for years - is now allowed to run roughshod over so-called planning.




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