Free to exploit

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 January, 2011, 12:00am

No one was seen popping champagne corks or dancing in the streets after the city was crowned the world's 'freest economy' by the Heritage Foundation. That's because while we may be the 'freest' of them all, we don't seem to be the happiest.

What is 'free' if we can't earn a decent living? It was only last summer that a lawmaker had the guts to advocate a HK$20 per hour minimum wage - a level that is inhumane if we consider how much things cost nowadays. Now, consider how a portion of our population has been working for less than that. We are, in fact, so 'free' that the underprivileged have been working for almost nothing - not exactly something to pat ourselves on the back for.

How truly 'free' are we if we are still arguing over a cross-sector competition law? Doesn't our experience with enforcing one on the telecommunications industry already prove such a law works?

If you are a hardcore devotee of Adam Smith or John Stuart Mill, you'd better stop reading now. But, for the rest of us, the realists, we know Hong Kong's 'free market' doesn't exactly belong to the common folk. The world's 'freest' market is also a centre of cross-sector oligopolies and cartels, where competitors who dare to enter their 'free market' can be snuffed out as they freely restrict supplies and refuse lease applications.

Perfect competition rarely occurs in real life and that is why laws - however imperfect - have become the second-best option used to regulate anti-competitive conduct. And in Hong Kong, where we have the luxury of having very little corruption, and a strong judiciary and institutions, there is little reason to believe that competition legislation could be a barrier to entry.

Critics - mostly representing the 'already-in-business' business interests - have unleashed their fury over the proposed competition law. We are 'competitive enough', they say, so we don't need the law. Well, we also have a phenomenally low crime rate, but we still need laws and the police.

They, claiming to speak on behalf of small and medium-sized enterprises, say that the law, however unintended, entraps businesses by misconstruing 'traditional business practices' to be anti-competitive behaviour.

And yet, we recognise that misconstruction is their classic modus operandi: invoke fear to deflect from the real issue. These are the same people who argue that in order for Hong Kong to maintain competitiveness, the only option, if a minimum wage must be adopted, is to set it at a really low level. But when asked about protecting competition, they talk about family business traditions. Saying that the law victimises SMEs follows the same crazy logic of saying that tougher drink-driving penalties hurt the poor professional drivers who insist they drink and drive. If SMEs take part in anti-competitive behaviour, they should not be exempted from legal repercussions that larger corporations face because 'that's how things have been done'. Slave labour may be great for profits, but no one in the civilised world would consider it a proud tradition to keep.

Perhaps the proposed legislation can be more specific, but we should keep in mind that overly detailed laws are the most ineffective because they have the most technical loopholes. And as it is, our lawmakers estimate that it will take them until the spring of next year at the earliest to finish reading the bill, which was tabled only after more than a decade of work; any further delay could effectively kill it.

Laws aren't static, so it is safe to assume that the competition legislation will evolve with time to reflect the evolving needs, conditions and values of society.

Our conservative friends at the Heritage Foundation would like us to put our trust entirely in the free market and submit ourselves to the invisible hand. But if we, in order to be considered 'free', are required to be deregulation fanatics, then we should feel no ill when the latest property market offering - The Icon - becomes the icon of 'con', epitomising the true evils of inadequate regulation.

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