Mr. Shangkong

From 'out-dated' Octopus card to Uber: Is the government's mindset blocking Hong Kong's future?

Policymakers need to ensure laws are relevant in today’s rapidly evolving ‘sharing economy’

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 August, 2015, 3:21pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 August, 2015, 12:20am

I first visited Hong Kong about 15 years ago as a tourist and the small plastic Octopus card left a very strong impression on me – I could use it to do many things from taking the subway to buying drinks at 7-Eleven stores around Hong Kong at a time when cash remained  king in my hometown of Shanghai.

I remember one thing that I found disappointing during my first trip to Hong Kong was riding in a taxi. If I  could use an Octopus card to go almost anywhere on the city’s MTR subway system, why couldn’t I use the plastic card to pay for my taxi fare? I  couldn’t do that 15 years ago and even  today, using an Octopus card to pay for a taxi fare is still only possible in a small number of cabs.

The past 15 years serve to show how Hong Kong has been gradually left behind in terms of technological development and innovation compared to other big cities around the world.   

Nowadays when you travel to mainland cities like Shanghai and Beijing, people don’t talk about credit cards but smartphone-powered internet payment solutions like Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat.  These are not only convenient for customers but also allow them to save some  money as such internet services often team up with merchants to provide special discounts for transactions.

Hong Kong’s Octopus card was once considered a great example of how technology could make people’s lives easier, but now it just looks like an awkward legacy of the last century rather than something that Hong Kong can be proud to show the world.

Once a leader in efforts to build a “smart city”, now Hong Kong is stuck in a rut and my Octopus card experience from 15 years ago compared to today is just one small reflection of the city’s disappointing lack of development.  

The problem is not about technology but the mindset of the city’s administrators. No one can stop technological development. Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen said the government was not against new technology, but development of new services powered by new technology must be done in accordance with the laws and regulations.

But let me ask Mr. Yuen a simple question – what if our laws and regulations were out of date? Some regulations may well fit the old “Octopus card” era but they already look inefficient and even strange to stay on in the internet era and the fast rise of a “sharing economy”, in which Internet-powered car service Uber and rental service Airbnb are already the new global industry leaders.

The government can easily introduce an administrative order to block Uber in Hong Kong today and blacklist Airbnb tomorrow. And then what?  

It’s time for policymakers to start thinking differently or we will be stuck with our Octopus cards for another 15 years. 


George Chen is managing editor of SCMP International Edition. For more Mr. Shangkong columns: or follow @george_chen on Twitter