Damned by its own statistics

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 January, 2010, 12:00am

'There are three kinds of lies,' said Benjamin Disraeli, one of Britain's most articulate prime ministers, 'lies, damned lies and statistics.' As head of government, he clearly knew what he was talking about. That is why, today, citizens need to be alarmed when faced with a government addicted to the use of spurious statistics to argue its case for various policies.

The Hong Kong government has become increasingly prone to this addiction. The latest manifestation came from secretary for transport Eva Cheng, who claimed delays in approving the HK$66.9 billion express railway project would 'cost' HK$5 million per day in time savings, whatever they are. Moreover, the government argued that HK$87 billion in these 'time savings' would be achieved once the project is up and running.

Time saving is a spurious economic concept that can only be quantified by making outlandish assumptions that quickly wither under careful examination. Yet such has been the government's determination to push through this project, and fulfil its pledge to its masters in Beijing, that small obstacles such as facts have not been allowed to stand in the way of the desperate campaign to secure funding for the railway.

Not satisfied with dishing out suspect statistics, the government was quick to castigate the project's critics who took the trouble to propose cheaper alternatives. This led government officials to leap about, accusing the doubters of operating on the basis of faulty data. These protestations would have been more convincing had they not been uttered with such speed as to suggest that the government had not even bothered to study the submissions.

By coincidence, on the same day that Cheng 'revealed' her discovery of the time-saving calculation, the Immigration Department inconveniently revealed that another much-vaunted government scheme based on a host of spurious statistics had more or less run aground. This is the delightfully named Quality Migrant Scheme, which, to put not too fine a point on it, was supposed to counterbalance the flow of riff-raff immigrants coming from the mainland with highly qualified migrants who would upgrade the local skills base. The scheme came into force in 2006 but singularly failed to attract the kind of response expected by the bureaucrats.

Instead of conceding defeat, and with considerably less fanfare, they then adjusted the criteria to permit older and less-qualified people to come in. And guess what happened? Yes, the scheme was transformed from failure to success - except that it had become a different scheme attracting two-thirds more entrants with less than five years of work experience, while the educational qualifications of applicants rapidly dropped. But, the statistics tell another story: the monthly average number of applicants has risen from 67 to 110. Now let us consider the curious business of the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement, unveiled in 2003 and constantly touted as an outstanding success in enhancing Hong Kong's manufacturing and service industries.

Of particular interest here are claims of jobs created as a result of Cepa. The overwhelming majority of these jobs emanate from one part of Cepa, the Individual Visitors Scheme. This scheme did not require the grandiose framework of Cepa to achieve the simple task of allowing more mainland visitors to come here.

However, because it was quickly appended to Cepa, its economic benefits could be hailed as a success for Cepa as a whole. According to government figures, 34,938 jobs were created by Cepa between 2004 and 2006. However, almost 55 per cent were attributed to the Individual Visitors Scheme. It is most unlikely that, in subsequent years, the emphasis has shifted in any direction other than towards jobs being produced by increased tourism and sales to visitors. However, the government has since failed to provide a breakdown.

The bottom line is that the public should be seriously wary when the government churns out statistics to 'prove' anything at all.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur