Time to stop arguing and get things done instead

As city gets bogged down with trivial matters two giants of commerce are looking elsewhere

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 August, 2013, 4:58am

Over the week, as the political temperature remains high following the chief executive's second summer town hall meeting, this time at Kwun Tong, one lower profile development should not go unnoticed.

On August 10, sprawling conglomerate China Resources Enterprise (CRE), the second-biggest supermarket operator on the mainland with its Vanguard chain, announced that it would set up a joint venture with British retail giant Tesco. CRE will hold an 80 per cent stake in the venture which will bolster CRE's position on the mainland.

It is revealing that, according to sources familiar with the deal and CRE's top management, CRE is aiming to boost its market share on the mainland yet has little interest in expanding its presence in Hong Kong by bidding for Li Ka-shing's ParknShop chain, which appears to be up for sale.

One source said: "Mr Li's decision is very much business sense, since the growth potential in the supermarket business in Hong Kong is limited. That's why CRE would rather focus on the mainland."

What does this say about Hong Kong's potential for overall economic growth? Both the city's richest individual and one of its biggest companies take the same view, and a dim one at that.

Two days after CRE's announcement, I visited someone who, coincidentally, works in the China Resources Building in Wan Chai. Frederic Ma Si-hang, former secretary for commerce and economic development, is a non-executive director of China Strategic Group, which shares the address with CRE, and he's someone I respect a great deal for his political and economic insights.

Ma, who resigned from government more than five years ago, made a rare move by commenting on a range of sensitive political issues for the Post last Friday. One of his comments in particular raised a serious question: how can Hong Kong move forward and get things done instead of getting bogged down in arguments over relatively trivial matters?

"Hong Kong is a free society and freedom of speech is our right," Ma said. "We have had lots of arguments in past decades on many issues, such as whether we had to build the new airport. Back in the '70s, there were those who questioned why on earth we needed to build the MTR. But once the goal was set, we moved ahead."

The former minister cited a Chinese saying: "Not to advance is to lose ground, like sailing upstream." He expressed concern that it seemed much of our energies and resources were being spent on minor details, but that there was little discussion or debate on how to get things done, and what was good for Hong Kong's development. He added that Hong Kong was facing stiff competition from Singapore, the mainland and other countries in the region. He said the chief executive and his team should improve governance and communications, including with lawmakers and the media.

Ma, who has been through the rough and tumble of government, sympathised with Leung and his administration and also with the frustrations of the pan-democrats because understanding was always more effective than confrontation, and being inclusive was good for the community. More understanding and tolerance would certainly go a long way these days.

Politically, we have pro- and anti-establishment groups, supporters and opponents of Leung, backers of Beijing and those who want to keep Hong Kong out of the Communist Party's grip.

Economically, we have a business elite and a mass of working-class people, a clutch of the very wealthy and ranks of people living in poverty. For all their different interests, these groups nevertheless have a stake in the success of Hong Kong.

The growth potential of the city should be judged not only from a business perspective. It is up to all of us to maintain its "can do - will do" spirit.