Until Hong Kong gets to choose its chief executive, a consensus is a distant dream

Mike Rowse says reflexive opposition to projects such as the Palace Museum again shows that the local political arena will remain adversarial until the people get to vote for their leader

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2017, 9:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 January, 2017, 6:39pm

I remember the early hours of November 1, 1999, when we reached a final agreement with the Walt Disney Company after nine months of gruelling negotiations. There had been no public consultation on whether Hong Kong should have such a theme park before the deal was done, nor was there an open competitive tender. What would have been the point?

Disney at the time operated nine of the world’s top 10 theme parks and we in the Hong Kong administration wanted one for ourselves. We trusted the common sense of the local community, in particular our legislators, to respond appropriately if we were able to strike a deal. To seek approval, we went to the Legislative Council seven times within that November. Eventually, the project was approved with only three dissenting votes, we signed the final contract in December and Hong Kong got its Disneyland more than a decade before Shanghai got theirs.

Legco ready to give Disneyland expansion plans the thumbs up

One thing we can be sure of amid the present Palace Museum saga, it would not be possible to sign such a deal now, or get approval for one after the event. Indeed, any sensible organisation would hesitate to engage the Hong Kong government on anything substantial, given our present political climate.

If the chief executive had been selected by us, would we not be more inclined to support him (or her)?

The atmosphere started to change in the early part of this century. In December 2000, we went to the Legco Finance Committee to seek approval for a government contribution towards the cost of a new exhibition centre next to the airport.

No deal had been done and we were proposing to engage in a full-scale global competitive tender exercise to select the private sector partner. The project brief had been subject to extensive consultation with Legco members and all relevant parties, and amended to meet public comments. Yet those who had promised in private their full support proceeded to challenge the project in the actual meeting, so as to score some political points.

In the event, the money was approved 12 months later. We cut the overall project delay to only four months by going ahead in the meantime with some parts that did not require funding approval. The final contracts were signed amid the severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis in 2003, and the AsiaWorld Expo opened ahead of schedule in 2005.

Carrie Lam has done a great job for Hong Kong in securing this magnificent [Palace Museum] project for our city

After that it was all downhill. An urgent need to expand Hong Kong Disneyland a few years after opening was delayed by a mixture of political timidity and the knowledge that any proposal from the administration would be opposed whatever the merits.

Even now, on funding the third phase of expansion, those who spent a decade complaining it is too small are objecting to plans to make it bigger – because none has the political courage or energy to fight the reflex negative response that can be guaranteed.

It is against this background that I judge the performance of Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in the exercise to secure an outpost of the Palace Museum for Hong Kong. Does she come across as arrogant? Sometimes she does. Could the PR have been handled better? Absolutely. But the bottom line here is that Lam is an outstanding official with some four decades of public service. She is honest and trustworthy – not a hint of scandal – and extremely hard working. And she has done a great job for Hong Kong in securing this magnificent project for our city. Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing and the rest will be eating their hearts out.

Watch: Protesters say Palace Museum ad evokes Tiananmen crackdown

Yet none of this counts for anything in what now passes as our political arena. Despite the minor gripes about the timing and scope of the public consultation (actually, the West Kowloon legislation gives the board discretion here), it does not take a genius to see the real opposition derives from the fact that the mainland is involved. Sadly, some cannot pass up the opportunity of a new stick with which to beat our sovereign power.

What is the root cause of this poison? There are a number of contributing factors, but in my view the main one is the repeated failure to move ahead with meaningful political reform. If the chief executive had been selected by us, would we not be more inclined to support him (or her) and his ministers? Unless and until we lance this boil, Hong Kong will continue to lose ground and the whole community will suffer.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk