Anachronism that chews up public funds

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 April, 2010, 12:00am

Lawmakers will discuss developments in the exhibitions sector on Tuesday.

SCMP, April 15

Well, it's Tuesday today and perhaps we can widen this discussion a little. Let's start by talking some more about dates.

Imagine yourself walking along the supermarket shelves when a packet of confections catches your eye. You like the look of them and, because you are a careful shopper, you check the freshness date. It says: 'Consume by April 2003.'

Someone has goofed big time here, you say and you call over the manager. But, no, he tells you everything is fine and, while the contents of this seven-year-old package may be a little mouldy, the shop is thinking of stocking a third shelf with them.

Welcome to the Trade Development Council. In April 2003, our domestic exports, excluding those involved in a garment labelling scam, dropped below 5 per cent of gross domestic product, which is a good benchmark for relevance. Below that level, exports are generally residual only, consisting mostly of industrial anomalies.

In other words, exports of Hong Kong-made goods have been effectively irrelevant to our economy for the past seven years. Yet the TDC is out there busily promoting exports that we don't have.

Okay, I shall be fair. They are not really promoting Hong Kong's exports now. They are promoting China's exports and, when you ask them why, they excuse themselves on the grounds that these exports come substantially from Hong Kong-invested companies across the border.

This suggests an immediate idea. There are many thousands of Hong Kong ID card holders in Vancouver and a good number of them are also involved in the export business. Why does the TDC not promote Canadian exports, too, in that case? What about it, fellas? It follows from your logic.

But let's delve a little further here. In order to carry out promotion of mainland-made wares, the TDC has a huge Convention and Exhibition Centre, half of which it was given outright and the other half of which it leases from the government for HK$1 a year. The cost of this complex was about HK$8 billion for construction alone. Add in the value of the land element and the market value of this asset is probably nearer HK$20 billion, all of it the TDC's for just HK$1 a year.

You would think this a pretty good head start over any competition in the promotion business, when you consider the TDC charges exhibitors for its fairs, stings users of its facilities for the full rental charges and has a lockhold on the trade publication business.

You may even have heard dark whisperings that the TDC occasionally leans on exhibitors with either/or propositions in relation to advertisements in these publications and the leasing of booths in its shows. There is a remedy. Plug your ears and you won't hear these dark whisperings.

But even with its huge advantages, this government monster cannot balance its books. It needs HK$360 million a year extra from us in the form of a niggling little trade levy that exporters find a big administrative nuisance.

Yet it does have competition, surprising as this may seem. AsiaWorld-Expo, that big barn you fly over at the end of the airport's outside runway, was partially built with private money and is doing its best to give the TDC a run.

It struggles, however. AsiaWorld-Expo thought it had an understanding with government that there would be no more sweetheart deals for the TDC. There was apparently an error in its thought process mechanisms.

In short order, the TDC got a big traffic-snarling expansion of its atrium at the convention centre and word now has it that the beast is hungry again. Its feeding requirements are what is meant by: 'Lawmakers will discuss developments in the exhibitions sector on Tuesday.'

In particular, the TDC wants to feed on AsiaWorld-Expo. It aims to gulp down this upstart rival and its appetite will not be satisfied until it does. In my opinion, this has gone well past normal competition. There is personal animosity at play here.

Meanwhile, the landscape of Guangdong is sprinkled with empty show palaces and more are on the drawing boards. The TDC no longer meets any need that others are not more suited and eager to meet. Why do we keep supporting it with precious land and treasure?

There is a simple answer of course. The TDC is still with us because nothing created by the Hong Kong government is ever shut down. It is years past its sell-by date but it is still on those shelves.

This does not really change things, however. What the TDC needs is someone wearing rubber gloves and a mouth mask to pick it up carefully between thumb and forefinger, open the dustbin of history, drop it in and close the lid.

Yes, and give those shelves a good wipe down, too, afterwards.