Rule by gesture, not meaningful policy
Gesture politics by the administration of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has reached a new low. Meanwhile, the implementation of policies announced long ago continues to be stymied as interest groups manipulate an increasingly politicised bureaucracy - note that the latest two deputy ministers are from the civil service, which combines timidity towards the powerful and arrogance towards the weak.
Just look at this proposal to induce households to save electricity by using low-energy light bulbs. This typically convoluted plan will, at best, have marginal impact on power consumption, and hence air pollution, but involve much bureaucracy and probably create opportunities for fiddles.
Household lighting is a minor use of power. Households account for only 25 per cent of power usage and most of that is for appliances such as televisions and air conditioning. There is one very simple way of reducing power consumption in a way that is both equitable and effective: tax it.
It may be too late, given the new scheme of control, to force the power companies to clean up their acts faster. But doubtless they can be paid to speed up their efforts and switch away from coal. The bottom line is that much could easily be done to cut power-related pollution if the government had the will to push meaningful policies instead of public relations gestures.
Unfortunately parties in the Legislative Council have, as all too often, missed the main point and gone chasing marginal issues - that there might be some conflict of interest because a Tsang relative deals in light bulbs. Indeed, one could go further and argue that this episode has shown up the inadequacy of a Legco that so often seems devoid of positive proposals, other than on constitutional issues.
Gesture politics was earlier evident with the 'no-car' day, with some bureaucrats taking public transport to work for a day to 'help' the environment. Meaningful policies would start with the government charging its employees market rates for the huge number of car park spaces at government offices. Upper level servants seem to think they deserve tycoon treatment. No wonder they are determined to spend HK$16 billion on the Central-Wan Chai Bypass, a road that will benefit few but add significantly to inner-city pollution.
As for failure to implement announced policies lest the government confront vested interests, look at the fishing industry. The industry now only survives thanks to sideline activities - not all legal - and subsidies. Last year it was announced (a decade after the mainland) that Hong Kong would impose strict controls on fishing and greatly reduce the number of trawlers by buying out the owners and retraining crews. But nothing has happened.
Reducing the fishing fleet would also cut air pollution, a significant portion of which comes from ships. But again, official efforts are mostly gestures. The international shipping lines on which Hong Kong depends for its trade are set up to use low-sulphur fuel and willing to follow strict regulations. But the government dare not take on the ferry and coastal vessel operators that cause most of the pollution. This is another issue, like health care reform or a minimum wage, left in the 'too hard' basket by officials-turned-politicians who talk about 'executive-led' government but, in practice, are led by the nose by interested parties.
Gestures like banning smoking in public parks are made, but meanwhile the much greater damage to community health goes ignored. Ministers and senior officials frequently tour foreign countries, supposedly to learn new ideas. So how come Hong Kong has fallen so far behind Sydney, Singapore, Seoul, Taipei, Tokyo and almost every city in Europe? How come the world's highest paid top officials are so incapable of decisive action unless ordered by Beijing or having their arms twisted by local conglomerates?
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator