HERE IS A simple question for you. If you are asked to buy something for $300 so that you can sell it for $100, would you consider the proposed deal a very good opportunity and an important boost? The answer is that you would, if you were an official of the Hong Kong government. Just ask Commerce Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen or Liberal Party legislator and tourism board chairwoman Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee. You may say No. They said Yes. The expenditure in question is an estimated HK$250 million to $300 million for hosting the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) sixth ministerial meeting next year or in 2005, including facilities, staff costs, security and logistics. Mr Tang is bidding for this show and some WTO members have apparently voiced support for the bid on a confidential basis. Confidential, you understand. It is in the public press. We have a new definition of confidential. In any case, lawmakers attending a commerce and industry panel meeting on Monday were told that the event would bring about 8,000 visitors and 180 government ministers to Hong Kong, which, and here is the kicker, would contribute about $100 million to the tourism industry. It is very simple, you see. If you subtract 100 from 300 you get 200 and that makes it a big win for us. Now, let us have no nitpicking here. What does it matter which way round you do the subtraction? Either way, you get 200, do you not? After all, the difference between a positive and a negative number is only one short vertical bar on the plus sign. Mr Tang's reasoning for considering this 'a very good opportunity' is that it would showcase Hong Kong 'as Asia's world city while showing we have fully recovered from the Sars outbreak'. I have news for you, Mr Tang. By late next year or 2005, people will treat the Sars outbreak as old history and the acronym will probably be thought to stand for Special Administrative Region Syndrome - an inclination to run big fiscal deficits by making the public purse pay for shows to benefit a narrow range of private interests. Similarly, it is all very well for Ms Chow to hail this as an important boost to Hong Kong tourism but then you would expect her to think of only one side of the equation. As chairwoman of the tourism board, she speaks for the tourism industry and, as a legislator, she represents only a functional constituency, retail and wholesale, also a beneficiary of tourism. She obviously has in mind the $100 million that the tourist industry would scoop up from this WTO show. The $300 million that the rest of us would pay to stage it is no concern of hers. She is not elected at large. Let us also remember that the offsetting $100 million income is not income to the electorate at large. It goes to airlines, hoteliers and shop landlords, together comprising only a very small proportion of the population. Of course, the tourism industry will reply to this that there are downstream benefits for the rest of us in, for instance, hotel, airline and shop employment. There will indeed be some benefits but, first of all, the jobs created will mostly be menial ones that we increasingly leave to labour migrants from the mainland and other countries and, secondly, this downstream benefit by no means adds up to $100 million. The reason is that most of that money will go to pay for imports. Government ministers from other countries will not sit down to a snack at a local noodle shop. They will mostly come in on foreign airlines, stay at foreign-owned or managed hotels, eat imported food from imported cutlery, buy imported goods and ride back to the airport in imported cars. The net benefit to our economy will be minimal. Our costs will not be picked up by others, however. It is our public money that went to pay for the Convention and Exhibition Centre and we will also have to pay vast sums to protect these people from the usual crowds of demonstrators that attend WTO functions. It is all very well for Mr Tang to say our police can handle it and we will not have a repeat of that WTO shambles in Seattle four years ago, but the demonstrators will come and the police or immigration authorities will have to resort to some forceful measures - not the sort of thing we want played up on news around the world. Are tear gas and police batons how you want 'Asia's world city' characterised, Mr Tang? Scrap this idea now. It is a loser on every count.