Jake's View

We need sound administration, not more pillars and backbones

For HK's economy to thrive, the government should just let its people find the next big thing

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 January, 2013, 4:36am

Therefore, we should not blindly pursue the development of new sectors and overlook the established pillar industries. The four conventional pillars have become our major economic backbone because they have the edge

Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, official blog

Here we have something to put chiropractors out of business. Say goodbye forever to backache. Just get yourself one of these many-pillared spines that John Whiskers favours, the edged ones. Did his teachers ever tell him about mixed metaphors?

But he has certainly distanced himself from his previous boss, former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. Only three years ago, Donald announced in a policy address that the four traditional pillar industries (trade, finance, tourism and professional services) were not enough.

We need six more, said Donald. They are to be education, medical services, testing and certification, innovation and technology, environmental industries, and cultural and creative industries. I shall start them up, he pledged.

He was a bit slow about it. From what I can see, the furthest he got was to make a big land grant to a snooty English school that caters to the children of mainland political lords. That's a toe-in-the-water start on one of the six and I am still stumped as to what benefit it will bring Hong Kong. Progress on the other five has consisted of talk alone.

Thus I cannot see it as a big loss that John Whiskers should now implicitly cancel financial support for these six by telling us that the original four are good enough. If anything, it will save us money. Let's rate this a good thing.

I find it interesting nonetheless that Donald's big initiatives should so easily be dismissed out of hand by a man he himself appointed financial secretary. You may wonder whether John Whiskers won't find his own big ideas, or those of his new boss, given equally short shrift in their time.

It all begins to have the ring of a Beijing Christmas carol - Seven Strategic Industries, Six New Pillars, Five-Year Plans, Four Modernisations, Three Represents, the Two Chinas Fallacy and a partridge in a pear tree.

No, I mistake myself. Christmas carols have lasting power. Can we be certain that our four "conventional" pillar industries really are so fixed in stone as our financial secretary portrays them?

Go back 30 years and Hong Kong's biggest pillar industry by far was manufacturing, accounting for almost a quarter of gross domestic product. It accounts for barely 1 per cent of GDP now and is not even mentioned in the supposed "conventional" four.

Now take trade, definitely one of the four at present. Just look at our booming container port at Kwai Chung for the proof.

Yes, look at it indeed. Transshipment now accounts for more than 60 per cent of the throughput, up from little more than 20 per cent 15 years ago. The real business of loading and unloading cargo has steadily migrated to ports across the border, which is where it belongs, given that the goods all come from across the border and go there. Methinks our government would be unwise to lean on this particular pillar too heavily in the future.

The fact is we have a parasite economy. It feeds on the mainland's economy and thrives by doing what the mainland cannot or will not do. We thrived on export manufacturing when the mainland's borders were closed. When they opened, we lost the manufacturers. We had a big port when we had the Pearl River Delta's only one. Now we don't. There is no point in wishing it back. We just have to move on.

I cannot say where we will move next. I think it could be arts and entertainment, much as South Korea has come to stand out in this field relative to Japan.

What I do know, however, is that Hong Kong people have always found the next big thing on their own without having to be led to it by the nose through any government initiative. I'm sure this will prove just as true in the future as it has in the past.

So here is an idea for you, Mr Tsang. Forget all your pillars and backbones. Just give us sound administration, and we'll do the rest ourselves.