Ambitious goals of think tanks in Hong Kong remain unfulfilled
The lofty goals of policy research institutes in Hong Kong remain unfulfilled with many rising or falling on the fortunes of politicians
When Christine Loh Kung-wai swapped her job as chief executive of think tank Civic Exchange for a post as undersecretary for the environment in September, she joined a rare breed - those who have served in both a think tank and the Hong Kong government.
It's not hard to explain why it's such a rarity. Few can match Loh's reputation in policy research, notably in the field of environmental protection, and the city's think tanks are too fragile, both politically and financially, to develop political talent.
For more than two decades, the vision of social scientists to develop think tanks in the city as hubs for policy research, and a still-more ambitious goal of establishing them as a knowledge-based industry, contributing to the local economy, remain unfulfilled. Instead individual think tanks tend to rise or fall based on the fortunes of particular politicians.
A case in point is the rapidly waning influence of the Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre, the favoured think tank of former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen.
The research centre was co-founded in 2006 by Tsang's closest allies - Norman Chan Tak-lam, now the chief executive of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, and Anthony Wu Ting-yuk, a partner in accounting firm Ernst & Young, who now chairs the Hospital Authority.
Charles Ho Tsu-kwok, chairman of Sing Tao News, was the protector of the foundation. Lau Ming-wai, son of multimillionaire Joseph Lau Luen-hung and vice-chairman of Chinese Estates Holdings, was one of its major supporters.
Wu and Ho went on to be key supporters of Henry Tang Ying-yen in his doomed campaign to succeed Tsang.
For the past six years, the think tank enjoyed the privilege of being able to consult government departments to help with its research agenda, and formed a solid reputation during Tsang's reign as a flagship of policy research.
It touched on various areas of local policies, such as the economy, social welfare, education and housing. It also studied macro-level issues affecting Hong Kong's ties to the mainland and Taiwan. Its policy recommendations were often well received, and some were taken on as government policies.
On the day when Chan established the think tank in February 2006, against the backdrop of Tsang's preparation to run for a second term of office, he said: "Our target is not to serve any political party or to help any particular person. We hope [the foundation] will have continuity to assist the government, no matter who is in the administration."
But if a week is a long time in politics, six years has clearly proved longer still.
The news that the Bauhinia Foundation would take a lower profile in future, with Wu stepping down as chairman, was hardly surprising. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who won the top job in March this year, apparently has his own preferred think tanks.
Leung, one of the most influential advisers to former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, was himself the chairman of the pro-Beijing think tank the One Country Two Systems Research Institute. The institute is now headed by Hang Lung Properties chairman Ronnie Chan Chichung, a Leung loyalist in his campaign.
The think tank's former executive director, Shiu Sin-por, has moved over to head the government's Central Policy Unit. Its executive director, Cheung Chi-kong, joined the Executive Council from July.
Leung's campaign team also 8included Karen Tang Shuk-tak, the executive director of the Better Hong Kong Foundation, another pro-Beijing research body. Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political analyst at Chinese University, said think tanks in Hong Kong are linked to the fortunes of individual politicians or political powers.
The predicament faced by the Bauhinia Foundation had happened in the past, he said, citing the example of the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute. Founded by Tung's special adviser Paul Yip Kwok-wah, the think tank was left almost dormant after Yip left the government in Tung's second term.
"Think tanks can hardly thrive in the absence of stable political institutions, such as established political parties, which they can affiliate to even after the leading figures fall from power," Choy said.
Think tanks in the United States, well funded and affiliated to political parties, are highly successful. The Brookings Institution is traditionally close to the Democratic Party while The Heritage Foundation has served as the intellectual powerhouse for the Republicans.
Over the past half-century, US think tanks have grown to be an integral part of the political establishment and have had a huge impact on policy development. The Brookings Institution's most famous achievement was helping to design what became the Marshall Plan for the post-war reconstruction of Europe.
One key difference with Hong Kong think tanks is finance. The Bauhinia Foundation targeted an operational budget of HK$100 million and is believed to have received donations from local tycoons, although it has kept the identity of its funders private. It's a far cry from The Brookings Institution, which was able to spend US$86 million in the last financial year and boasts total assets of more than US$400 million, boosted by support from the likes of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Dr Li Pang-kwong, director of the Public Governance Programme at Lingnan University, said policy research in Hong Kong was nowhere near the level of the US, and was also falling behind Singapore, Taiwan and the mainland.
Li, the Bauhinia Foundation's research director between 2009 and last year, bemoaned a "knowledge deficit" in the government's policymaking process. "[Policy research] is a barren land in Hong Kong where input from the government and society as a whole is seriously lacking," he said. "Unfortunately the political elites have failed to attach importance to policy studies."
Li said it was a legacy of the colonial era.
"In the past, the colonial government could always borrow well-researched policies from their homeland," he said. "It created an illusion among local elites that Hong Kong could run smoothly without policy studies. And that became a problem after the sovereignty handover."
Brian Fong Chi-hang, vice-chairman of independent think tank SynergyNet, said the prospects for think tanks were further dampened when researchers found that their findings would have little impact.
"As an independent think tank, the government would be unlikely to accept your policy recommendations because they have their own logic in policymaking," he said.
"Political parties, meanwhile, will tell you they are not in a position to initiate policies. We can only resort to the media, but a headline can be forgotten the next day."
He said a standard research project, conducted by half a dozen researchers, could cost at least HK$500,000 over six months. "It becomes a vicious 8cycle as no one will commit to projects which have little impact."
Jeff Sze Chun-fai, director of research for the Savantas Policy Institute, a think tank founded by New People's Party lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, is more optimistic.
"The arrival of universal suffrage will raise public expectations over the quality of government policies," he said. "Political parties will need more solid studies for their platforms and that will eventually show the worth of think tanks."
One Country Two Systems Research Institute
Established 1990. Pro-Beijing. Previously chaired by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Studies public policy, as well as social and economic issues.
Hong Kong Policy Research Institute
Established in 1995 by former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa's special adviser Paul Yip Kwok-wah. Aims to promote development based on the concept of "one country, two systems".
The Better Hong Kong Foundation
Set up in 1995 by pro-Beijing tycoons. Karen Tang Shuk-tak is the executive director. Aims to build understanding between East and West.
Founded by ex-lawmaker Christine Loh Kung-wai - now undersecretary for the environment - in 2000 to promote civic education and develop economic, social and political policies.
Founded in 2002 by intellectuals and professionals close to pan-democrats to promote a "third way".
Roundtable Institute & Its Network
Founded in 2004 by young academics to bring about research-based policy formation and support younger generations' civic participation.
The Lion Rock Institute
Co-founded by free market advocates Simon Lee Chao-fu, Andrew Shuen Pak-man and Andrew Work in 2004 to promote Hong Kong's best free-market practices to the world.
Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre
Founded in 2006 by Norman Chan Tak-lam and Anthony Wu Ting-yuk. A flagship think tank in Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's reign as chief executive.
Savantas Policy Institute
Founded by former security minister turned lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee in 2006. Aims to transform Hong Kong into a knowledge-based economy.
Founded by Franklin Lam Fan-keung, now an Exco member. Advocates a belief the city will enjoy strong opportunities in the next five years to define development for 50 years.