A poor track record when it comes to selling mega projects

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 January, 2010, 12:00am

The grounds for supporting the highly controversial and politicised express rail link are obvious and the theories of economic benefits all seem reasonable. What will become of Hong Kong if it is not part of the nation's major transport artery? Investing in our part of the cross-border high-speed railway is an essential component of our search for sustainable economic growth and a way to escape being marginalised.

The legislature will decide today the fate of the high-speed railway, but all the noise - for and against - makes it necessary for the government to look closely at why it failed to make such an 'easy sale'. The HK$66.9 billion cost is not small and the rising price of building materials is unfortunate. The public rightfully expects lawmakers to scrutinise the proposal, especially when we consider the government's track record on forecasting economic benefits.

A decade ago, the government's sales pitch for Hong Kong Disneyland rested on estimated economic benefits amounting to HK$148 billion over 40 years. But, not only did the theme park miss its first-year visitor projection, its attendance performance fell a further 23 per cent in its second year. Add that to the additional money from the public purse for the approved expansion, and the 'HK$148 billion sales pitch' looks more like a fairy tale today.

And what about our all-time favourite, Cyberport? Once considered 'essential for Hong Kong's future and any role Hong Kong will play in IT and information services', this project was supposed to bring in at least HK$12 billion from online trading and another HK$9 billion in tourism. Apart from a cinema, restaurants, bridal boutiques and outlet shops, Cyberport's projected 'significant positive impact on Hong Kong's long-term competitiveness' and equally 'significant' economic benefits seem laughable today.

Cyberport has become a sad landmark that symbolises all of the government's bad judgment calls, and is the very reason why, when the government talks about reaping economic benefits, its figures fail to have any impact or resonate with the rest of the community. The fact that the narrative of opponents has gained more traction within the community reveals the government's growing disconnect with the public. Its failure to recognise the legitimate grievances of stakeholders has fuelled what the 'Post 50s' group's advertisement called the 'political show' that has been dominating headlines.

For the 150 families being forced to make way for the railway, they are having to give up not only their homes, but also their way of life. The railway will also run under Tai Kok Tsui residents' homes, leaving them worried about possible adverse effects. The government has failed to resolve these real-life issues; it has failed at politics.

Politics, by definition, refers to the methods and tactics used in formulating and applying policy. The government's job is to protect its citizens' property. Running high-speed trains underneath and across people's homes does not exactly fit that job description.

Officials' inability to placate residents of Tsoi Yuen village with compensation packages is a demonstration of failed politics - of a failure to communicate and persuade people that the government is working for, not against, them. Money is not a show of sincerity; neither is making the Heung Yee Kuk do the dirty work. Rolling up your sleeves to engage affected residents, hearing their concerns, and working together in finding a mutually acceptable alternative, is.

Not only was the government unable to communicate the benefits of the railway, it seemed incapable of understanding how the country's high-speed transport link works. It was stumped when legislators questioned why the Guangzhou station is located on the outskirts of the city, in Shibi. It is no wonder that a University of Hong Kong survey found that the number opposed to the project has tripled and, more disturbingly, nearly 60 per cent said they had little knowledge of the project. The government seems to know little about it, either.

Had the administration done its job of informing the public about the project's details, and worked closely with stakeholders to find solutions, the legislative process would not have been politicised and funding would have been approved long ago.

The government has failed to bulldoze the project onto the residents of Tsoi Yuen village and Tai Kok Tsui, and it is now bulldozing it onto the legislature.

When transport secretary Eva Cheng, in her attempt to urge lawmakers to support the railway this week, warned of a daily cost of HK$5 million for any further delays, she sounded like the boy who cried wolf. The fact is that the community has become desensitised to the government's optimistic figures - past and present - and many have grown sceptical of anything officials claim is for the city's 'best interest'.

This is the crux of the rail link's controversy, the cause of its delay and the price the government must pay for sales pitches gone haywire.

And this is exactly one of the 'deep-rooted conflicts' that Premier Wen Jiabao asked our chief executive to get a handle on.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA