One country

Why Hong Kong must assert its position as China’s first city

Mike Rowse says blocking initiatives with any links to the mainland is a dead end that Hong Kong must get out of, if it is to progress

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 May, 2017, 9:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 May, 2017, 7:02pm

A very old schoolboy joke has one man asking another, who looks down in the dumps, “What happened to your get up and go?” And the second replies: “It got up and went”. But it is not all that amusing when people start asking the same question of Hong Kong itself. So, “Has Hong Kong lost its mojo?”

Recent events make the query a reasonable one. Look at the way we have handled major infrastructure projects like the bridge to Zhuhai and Macau and the high-speed rail link. But I sometimes wonder if we aren’t our own worst enemies: just think of the fuss over the Palace Museum, or the controversy over extra funding for Disneyland.

Watch: Protesters say Palace Museum ad at Central MTR station evokes June 4 incident

Not that this is a new phenomenon: cast your mind back to the opening of the new airport at Chek Lap Kok in 1998, much criticised at the time but now regarded as one of the best in the world.

The idea of a bridge linking Hong Kong, Zhuhai and Macau is an excellent one. It would have been ideal if we had built it 20 years ago and arguments in favour became compelling 10 years ago. If we are lucky, it might open next year. Why were we so slow off the mark? Similarly, with the high-speed rail link. As soon as the schedule for the network to reach Guangzhou became known, we should have been pushing ahead with plans for Hong Kong to plug into it. We should be presenting ourselves as one of the first major cities in China, not one of the last. But the project became mired in controversy. We did not help ourselves by putting the terminal in the wrong place, which delayed the project and contributed to massive cost overruns.

Another piece of infrastructure in the news is the Kai Tak cruise terminal. A city like Hong Kong needs and deserves a world-class facility, which Ocean Terminal manifestly is not. The audit report criticised the utilisation rate, leading some to query justification for the project. But the real problem is that we were slow to market it effectively to the global cruise industry, and onshore arrangements are inadequate. Leaving well-heeled tourists standing in a taxi queue for hours does not encourage them to return or to recommend us.

Capturing the Palace Museum project was a major coup that we should have celebrated and trumpeted to the world. Instead, we spent weeks beating up the administration over peripheral matters.

We may not have lost our mojo altogether. But it has been badly damaged

In Ocean Park and Disneyland, Hong Kong has two world-class theme parks, a boast not many cities can make, and both attract visitors by the millions. Ocean Park is undergoing a major revamp, with substantial financial backing from the government. This support package got a relatively easy ride because the park is perceived as more local in nature, though in fact it is more heavily dependent on mainland tourists.

Disney tends to get a rougher passage despite the fact that it employs many thousands of Hongkongers, its training programme sets the industry standard and it provides a career for graduates from the Academy for Performing Arts. Luckily, finance committee members approved the latest capital injection to speed up the development of the theme park, but not before much negative publicity was generated.

Both parks suffered financially because of the drop-off in the number of mainland tourists. Can anyone else remember the causes of the decline? It came because our community chose to ask for the exit regime for Shenzhen citizens to be tightened, and some Hong Kong people took it into their heads to insult visitors from the mainland. We made it harder for customers in our core market to come here, and made them feel less welcome if they did. Both parks were making a profit before we undermined them.

Anti-mainlander protest urging curbs on visitor numbers tarnished city, say top officials

Overall, I get the impression that, at the strategy level, we are identifying the right things to do, albeit sometimes a little later than desirable. Our execution, though, has stumbled. Things might be easier if people felt more ownership of the government, and got behind it, but that will only come with political reform.

We have to accept the reality that we are irrevocably part of China

More importantly, as a community we have to accept the reality that we are irrevocably part of China, and make the best of it, rather than pretend – as some seem to – that by blocking any initiative with a mainland angle we can better serve the people of Hong Kong. That course is just a dead end.

We may not have lost our mojo altogether. But it has been badly damaged and needs serious repair.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises. mike@rowse.com.hk