MTR madness: overcrowding and the politics of Cheung Chi-kong

Michael Chugani says Cheung Chi-kong's gaffe about overcrowding has not only made him out to be a fool but also hurt CY Leung

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 May, 2014, 9:19pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 May, 2014, 1:40am

Last Wednesday I took the MTR from Central to Kowloon Tong at 7.40 in the morning for a radio show. Most passengers were early bird local commuters but I did hear some Putonghua. I took the MTR back to Central at around 9.30am. This time I heard far more Putonghua. A sizeable chunk of the passengers in my packed carriage were mainland tourists who had streamed in from the border on the East Rail Line and were making train connections in Kowloon Tong.

At 12.15pm I took the MTR again from Central to Admiralty. This time, I heard more Putonghua than Cantonese.

Whenever I travel back and forth from Central to Tai Po for my TV shows, mainlanders with wheeled suitcases and other bulky baggage overwhelm the East Rail. Unscientific as this poll may be, it does show that mainland visitors worsen congestion on our MTR trains. That means Cheung Chi-kong is either blind or an idiot, or he doesn't ride the MTR.

Cheung ignited public fury last week when he told a forum that the flood of mainlanders does not add to MTR overcrowding. Such an inane remark would normally be dismissed as the uninformed opinion of a fool. But Cheung is a member of the Executive Council and a trusted adviser of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. As such, you wonder what kind of advice he has been giving Leung on growing tension between locals and mainlanders.

Cheung is also the head of the pro-Beijing One Country Two Systems Research Institute. I couldn't help but think political expediency made him blame locals. Cheung sits on the side of the fence where it is a no-no to say anything negative about the mainland.

The public rightly ridiculed him for being a dunderhead. Anyone who thinks 40 million mainland visitors a year do not worsen congestion on an already overstretched MTR system in a city of seven million can't be thinking straight. In fact, studies show the bulk of mainland visitors use the MTR.

He tried to explain away his gaffe with the clownish excuse that he was speaking off the cuff in Putonghua, which he claimed he's not very good at. He must think we're all fools. A Beijing loyalist with lousy Putonghua who heads a pro-Beijing think-tank but can't do without prepared speeches? Now I have heard everything.

It is people like Cheung who give a bad name to the so-called loyalist camp. His inane remark added to the public perception that that group puts Hong Kong's interests second. What else should long-suffering MTR commuters think when told by a trusted adviser of the chief executive that they only have themselves to blame for overcrowded trains?

Not only did Cheung make a fool of himself, he also hurt Leung in the process, and he helped the cause of those activists who dub mainland visitors "locusts". What policy message is the government sending when the chief executive now admits too many mainlanders visit but his adviser blames locals for congestion? Or when the commerce secretary says we can handle 70 million visitors a year and commuters should wait if they can't board the first train?

Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host.