A Korean model
President-elect Lee Myung-bak could teach Hong Kong a lot about creating a liveable city, writes Philip Bowring
Some leaders can change their mindsets to suit the times and public demand. So if our chief executive, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, can raise his eyes to a wider world, he should take note of the massive electoral victory of South Korean presidential candidate Lee Myung-bak. Once upon a time, Mr Lee was a top executive at Hyundai Construction, covering the world in general and Seoul in particular with concrete - roads, bridges, housing and office blocks - obliterating hillsides, felling trees, covering over rivers.
But when Mr Lee became mayor of Seoul in 2002, he quickly realised that times had changed. South Korea was prosperous, highly educated and democratic. The people refused any longer to be pushed around, told what was good for them by the chaebol - the small group of family-owned behemoth businesses of which Hyundai Construction was a part.
They wanted quality of life, which meant cleaner air, a return of some greenery, the re-emergence of a natural landscape. So this conservative representative of the business community set about undoing much of his own previous handiwork. Flyovers were torn down to uncover long-forgotten rivers. The open space in front of city hall was turned from a vast traffic jam into a green public park. Yet more money was invested in the underground railway system, controls on vehicle and industrial emissions were tightened and new, low-polluting buses introduced.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the unelected leader remains a creature of Hong Kong's own chaebol, the small coterie of names whose view of the future is more of the past.
Perhaps Mr Tsang will finally learn, not just from the experience of Seoul (or Singapore or Taipei) and the survey by the Council for Sustainable Development on Hongkongers' attitudes to - and willingness to pay for - cleaner air. Given the tendency of senior government officials to bow before the relatives of tycoons, one must perhaps be thankful that the council is headed by a son-in-law of the late Sir Y.K. Pao, Edgar Cheng Wai-kin. Mr Cheng is very much an establishment figure: a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, former head of the Central Policy Unit and on innumerable boards and committees. He has influence that long-time but pragmatic promoters of cleaner air, such as Christine Loh Kung-wai, lack due to the small-circle power system.
The council's survey suggests not only that people are prepared to pay for cleaner air, but would also be willing to see statutory restrictions on energy use, just as they have supported legislation against smoking in restaurants.
It is not surprising that, in a society where there is only one car for every 20 people, there is support for more public transport and road pricing. Hong Kong would probably have had some form of road pricing years ago but for the self-interest of legislators who boast of the number of luxury cars they own, and bureaucrats who get free parking and access to a huge fleet of large official cars.
Yet, such a system could be easily implemented now by requiring all vehicles to have an Autotoll-type pass, and creating a number of electronic gates at key locations similar to those at the tunnels. Pricing could easily be adjusted depending on the time of day and location, as well as the emission standard of the vehicle.
It does not need years of consultation - a code word for prevarication by bureaucrats in thrall to vested interests - to implement such a scheme. Likewise, it needs only a simple decision by Mr Tsang to reject the construction lobby, which led the donors to his political campaign. He could scrap plans for more concrete in the heart of the city, scrap the new urban highways, the harbour reclamation schemes, the bureaucracy's new temple - and spend a few of the saved billions on the subsidised replacement of high-emission trucks and buses with new vehicles.
Our Korean community could do us all a favour by inviting president-elect Lee to Hong Kong for a lecture on urban governance in the democratic age. But would Mr Tsang listen?
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator