PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 5:07am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 10:28am

Direct rage at officials, not mainland Chinese visitors

Philip Bowring says the government must answer for overcrowding in the city - a result of poor housing and transport planning, exacerbated by other policy failures


Philip Bowring has been based in Asia for 39 years writing on regional financial and political issues. He has been a columnist for the South China Morning Post since the mid-1990s and for the International Herald Tribune from 1992 to 2011. He also contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal,, a website of which he is a founder, and elsewhere. Prior to 1992 he was with the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, latterly as editor.

The proposal to limit or tax mainland visitors is absurd and can only create ill will, not only among mainlanders but the wider world. Yet, while government officials denounce the damage caused by such demands, they should be reminded of their own recent contributions - indeed leadership - in undermining Hong Kong's tradition of openness to people, ideas, trade and money.

They should start by remembering who introduced the restriction on purchases of baby milk powder, a measure aimed at mainlanders. This law is in contradiction of the basic principle of free trade. Less noticed, but equally alarming, is official connivance at the causes of the local shortages of milk powder.

There is no global shortage of any of these products. Hong Kong can readily import enough to meet visitor demand. Shortages were the result of deliberate limitation of supply to maximise prices. This was only possible because vested interests are allowed to impede parallel imports of these goods.

Furthermore, if cross-border trade in milk powder was creating a problem for local public transport, a pro-active government would have provided a facility for such purchases at the border, just as it provides facilities for retailing at the airport.

No government can complain about demands for visitor restrictions when it imposes a special tax on property purchases by non-residents - again aimed at mainlanders. This has not even had the desired effect, at least for properties other than luxury ones. Yes, there was public clamour for measures to rein in mainland buying. But the anti-free-market measures, which will have to be withdrawn as the property cycle turns of its own accord, is a cover for the government's failures over the past decade to supply land for housing, whether private or public.

Leung Chun-ying is trying to rectify these years of deliberate starvation of land supply. But his two closest officials, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, as former secretary for development and earlier as permanent secretary for housing, planning and lands, and John Tsang Chun-wah, as finance secretary, bear a heavy responsibility for that policy - and for attendant ones such as the surrender to illegalities protected by the Heung Yee Kuk.

Another gripe about mainland visitors is that they make public transport even more crowded. That is at best a half-truth, given that the average number of such visitors on any given day is no more than 5 per cent of the resident population. But again it points to past government failures to invest in additional public transport - even though its official forecasts for population growth were far higher than what eventuated.

The extensions now under way - to Ap Lei Chau, Kennedy Town and Whampoa, totalling just over 12 kilometres, and the Sha Tin-Central link, which will not be completed until 2020 - should have been started at least a decade ago.

Next is the traffic chaos caused by busloads of mainland tourists clogging streets in Wan Chai, Repulse Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui, and so on. It is not the tourists' fault that officials make minimal attempt to provide parking areas, or stop tourist buses disobeying parking regulations. But do not expect any action from ministers so fearful of making decisions that, to please some of the car- and truck-owning minority, they dare not raise the central tunnel toll, now just one-third of what it was in real terms when it opened in 1972. The minister must be sacked for incompetence.

Contrast the lack of effort and investment to deal with the mainland influx with the vast expenditure of public money on the cruise terminal in a prime harbour location which will be used by a tiny number of visitors.

There are costs as well as many benefits in mainland tourism, and Hong Kong needs to stop being spoiled and accept the downside as well as the benefits of an open society.

Instead of doing something positive to make the mainland influx less of an inconvenience, the government is making the public even more anxious by forecasting that mainland visitors will rise to 70 million by 2017. Like most government forecasts, that is probably exaggerated - and especially so if Hong Kong has nothing more to offer than shopping malls. But it is seen as a threat.

Which leads to a final local complaint: that small shops are being priced out of traditional areas by big brand names aiming at mainlanders and backed by the financial resources to offer top dollar to landlords. That is indeed a pity for residents who appreciated the variety of shops that these districts used to offer.

But the problem has been exacerbated by Hong Kong officials' attitudes to the secondary locations that should welcome the variety of shops and markets providing the variety of goods that visitors and locals would like to see. Thus, the Urban Renewal Authority destroys streets to pander to the greed of its developer partners, wet markets are forced out of business to please the retail oligopolies, and whole districts are subjected to destruction rather than modernisation for the benefit of a favoured few.

Let us welcome mainlander visitors (as others) and instead aim our wrath at Lam and her bureaucrats, whose failings and doings have fuelled local resentment.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator