The View

Hong Kong’s ‘committee trick’ is old hat and won’t placate frustrated youth

The bottom line here is that the Lam administration has resorted to a tactic much favoured by government bureaucracy since colonial times

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 November, 2017, 10:37am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 November, 2017, 10:32pm

What do big organisations do when faced with a massive problem that they have no idea how to resolve? Mostly they come up with the bright idea of forming a committee, or if the problem emanates from dissatisfied people in the ranks, they try and shut them up by offering jobs or membership of status-bearing committees.

This tells you all you need to know about the Hong Kong government’s current plans for getting “young people” to join its advisory committees, accompanied by suggestions that yet more committees might be cobbled together to accommodate the young.

Does the chief executive seriously think that plucking a number of young people out of the hat will satisfy the demands of countless others who are worried about more or less everything?

The bottom line here is that the Lam administration has no clue how to tackle the mounting frustration among Hong Kong’s younger generation and in the absence of a better plan has resorted to a tactic much favoured by the government bureaucracy since colonial times.

The old colonial bureaucrats were particularly good at this and had a knack for placating either the brightest and the best or those who simply made a lot of noise protesting against government policy. They were installed in a number of advisory bodies, and some were given fancy titles. And that, it was deemed, solved whatever problem came to hand.

This policy has the potential for limited success because among the discontented there are always some opportunists who are eager to be bought off and can be relied upon to shut up once this has been done.

Usually, however, the nominalism of plucking out a small number of people in the hope of placating a much larger number does not work. Listed companies, alarmed by the growing tide of opposition to high executive pay, have used this tactic by installing critics on their boards of directors, but have found that this does very little to dissipate the criticism.

Nevertheless the government thinks that it can somehow ignore the widespread evidence of the failings of the committee-membership trick by putting a small number of young people on official committees, including the reformed Central Policy Unit.

Officials claim to be worried that younger people are insufficiently engaged in public affairs. Yet, as the Occupy movement demonstrated and subsequent events have confirmed, the problem is not the reluctance of younger people to get involved in public affairs but their insistence in getting involved with protests against the way things are being run.

Does the chief executive seriously think that plucking a number of young people out of the hat will satisfy the demands of countless others who are worried about more or less everything, ranging from pressure in the education system to housing to a lack of democracy to, well, you name it?

The young people most actively involved in public affairs, the majority of whom are very much opposed to the government, have already indicated that they want nothing to do with this half-hearted initiative. That leaves recruitment largely confined to the realms of known or potential government supporters. In other words the new recruits are likely to provide an echo chamber for government policy as opposed to a genuinely open approach.

As it happens – although no one notices it unless it does something stupid – the government already has a Commission on Youth, chaired by rich kid Lau Ming-wai, the son of property tycoon Joseph Lau Luen-hung. This 35-year old’s advice to young people worried about the high cost of housing is – I kid you not – that they should cut down on going to the cinema and stop travelling to Japan.

No doubt there are other rich kids lurking in the wings ready to assume governmental advisory duties, alongside aspirant pro-government politicos and some younger people who genuinely think they might be of some use and are not exactly deterred by the prospect of monthly salaries ranging from HK$30,000 to HK$95,000.

Of course this is all a sham. But the Hong Kong government can take comfort from the fact it’s not alone in trying to pull off the committee trick. The worlds’ biggest organisations also believe that no problem is too big to ignore in the confident expectation that it can be sidelined into oblivion by creating a myriad of committees.

Business organisations are mistakenly believed to be more practical in these matters because commerce has the virtue of being quantified by an easily identifiable bottom line. However, as corporations grow, they too come to believe that the formation of a committee is the best way to avoid problems.

This leaves the door open for younger and more nimble companies to challenge their committee-bound competitors but then they too grow bigger and, guess what? They fall into the committee trap and so, quite remorselessly, the process of learning nothing from failure is perpetuated. Why this is so is one of the great wonders of the world.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster