Asian Games

Games bid sets slope for playing field

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 November, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 November, 1999, 12:00am

Better get ready for Games-Port. After all, we already have Cyber-Port. That started the trend, not only for adopting such silly names but also of abandoning the past insistence on a fair and open tendering process in favour of cosy deals with favoured private-sector partners.

Herbal-Port is waiting in the wings, with big developers offering to build a Chinese medicine centre in return for lucrative land concessions.

A Flower-Port is also on its way, aimed at soaking up some of the spare air cargo capacity at Chek Lap Kok. Not to mention all the Government's other departures from its former non-interventionist stance that cannot be so neatly pigeon-holed.

There is certainly no shortage of these, from the Disney theme park to plans for a Las Vegas-type casino and entertainment centre. And the Silicon Harbour chip-making plant which is still under consideration but will require unprecedented tax breaks.

So it could be only a matter of time before Games-Port joins this rapidly lengthening list after the Government's expression of interest in hosting the 2006 Asian Games.

Officials have already pointed in this direction in a paper for legislators on the bid. It listed making land available to developers - with the implication this would be on highly concessionary terms - as one way of building the Games Village for 10,000 athletes and officials.

But there is no reason why the opportunities should stop there for anyone intent on circumventing that tiresome requirement for a level playing field which is normally a prerequisite for any government tendering exercise.

Financial Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and other senior officials initially tried to block the Asian Games bid on the grounds that, with Hong Kong facing a series of budget deficits, there is no money to fund such an extravagance.

Although overruled, their opposition is reflected in the Government's continuing pretence that no new venues are needed to host the Games.

But no one really believes this. Certainly not the sports professionals, who insist new facilities are essential.

So it will be no surprise to see Li Ka-shing or one of the other big developers step forward and offer to build some of the sports venues that everyone knows are needed but which the Treasury claims it cannot afford. In return they will, of course, demand related land development concessions.

But that should not pose a problem for the Government. Indeed, the Asian Games is almost tailor-made for invoking those special criteria under which officials no longer feel obliged to follow fair and open procedures in considering such private-sector initiatives.

These were drawn up after the row over the granting of lucrative property rights in the Cyber-Port without allowing rival developers to compete.

They include whether the project is also being sought by other economies in the region. This is certainly true of the 2006 Games, which Malaysia also hopes to host.

Another is time-sensitivity. Developers could argue this is relevant as only they can guarantee to get the sports venues ready on time. Other criteria are worded so broadly, referring to anything that accords with government policies, that it is easy to argue they are also applicable. All this would mark a further shift away from the policy of a fair and open level playing field that was so strictly pursued until recently.

The saving grace is that, given the Government's half-hearted attitude to the Games bid, there is only an outside chance of Hong Kong being chosen. And that means all these Games-Ports may yet prove unnecessary.

Danny Gittings is a South China Morning Post Associate Editor.