Profits come first

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 April, 2007, 12:00am

The Link Reit listing has sparked fierce controversy and numerous problems. Some shops and restaurants have been forced out of business because of the drastic rent increases or The Link Management's marketing strategy. Clinics have been forced to move to sites with fewer customers. The responsibility for compensation of losses for Hau Tak market vendors in Tseung Kwan O, following a fire on April 11, remains unclear. Similar conflicts are certain to arise in the future.

The privatisation of the Housing Authority's commercial space concerns the legitimate rights of 3 million public housing tenants. It may someday evolve into a serious political crisis, harming social harmony and security.

In 2004 I opposed, against all the odds, the sale of the authority's shopping centres and car parks, and supported elderly public housing tenant Lo Siu-lan's move to seek a judicial review in an attempt to prevent the sale of assets at a cut-price rate. I also expected that The Link Reit, as a market-driven company, would try its best to pursue profit and safeguard shareholders' interests at the expense of public housing tenants. That would be a breach of Section 4 of the Housing Ordinance, which stipulates that the provision of housing and ancillary amenities for public housing tenants should be secured.

Even if the government was determined to get The Link Reit listed, it should have followed the MTR Corporation's example in appointing the financial secretary, along with a team of financial officials, to take charge of the listing. It should also have retained a strategic stake, instead of selling off entire holdings. It was unfortunate that former housing secretary Leung Chin-man, who had little financial knowledge and even tried to bypass the Legislative Council, took full charge of The Link Reit listing.

The media, which often labels itself as the government and legislature watchdog, should be held culpable for The Link Reit controversy, too. Its one-sided support for the privatisation of public assets, as well as indiscriminate attacks and filthy smears on those against the listing, especially Ms Lo, are outrageous.

Unscrupulous reporting on The Link Reit affair could only be explained by the greed of the heads of some media organisations anxious to reap great profits by buying shares regardless of press ethics.

The Link Reit has now proved itself as a company that seeks only to look after commercial interests and disregards social responsibility. However, no one from the media has ever apologised or said anything to redress the injustice to Ms Lo and the underprivileged.

On January 1, 2005, nearly 10,000 people - incensed by some unscrupulous politicians and reactionary newspapers - protested against the 'backstage manipulator' holding up The Link Reit listing. The protest must be considered one of the most terrifying incidents in Hong Kong history, because a gang of 100 boxers also took part, with the intention of intimidating those opposed to listing.

It is disturbing that legislators, directors of the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, and prominent financial figures joined the rally. Worse still, the following day, the press seemed to approve of the protest and made no mention of the threat of violence. The Democratic Party has also yet to learn from The Link Reit controversy. When the debate first developed, I urged the party to join me against the listing to protect the interests of public housing tenants. This could also have given the democrats an opportunity to enlist the support of the grass-roots population and expand their political influence. But the democrats might be too obsessed with the ideas of a free economy and privatisation to oppose the deal.

Now that political parties like the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and even the Liberal Party have switched sides on the affair to grab more votes, maybe it is time for the Democratic Party to readjust its stance, as well.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a directly elected legislator