My Take

How bureaucracy helps mow down entrepreneurship

Food trucks may appear to be a great idea to help small businesses but as time passes, it will be the big boys who dominate the trade

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2016, 2:21am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2016, 2:21am

The most enduring legacy of former financial secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen has nothing to do with finance. Rather, it’s the unoriginal but profitable licensing of vanity car plates.

His successor, John Tsang Chun-wah, is about to continue this tradition. Our finance minister looks set to leave his job and run for the top post of chief executive. But before he does, he is leaving us with 16 new food trucks, an idea he got apparently from watching a Hollywood movie – about food trucks.

The movie Chef is about entrepreneurial cooks on wheels. But if there were to be a Hong Kong remake, it would probably be about bureaucrats telling would-be chefs how to go about their business and what to serve. That was how the 16 winners were picked by a panel of government officials and food experts, who in turn were handpicked by officials.

Food truck cook-off! With 51 applicants battling for just 16 licences, signature dishes will decide who feeds Hong Kong

Despite our city’s reputation for free-market capitalism, the amount of government regulation, interference and supervision in the food-truck scheme would have put to shame those micromanaging bureaucrats in the European Union.

Still, Tourism Commissioner Cathy Chu Man-ling pronounced the whole selection process a success, as seven local start-ups and small businesses were among the winners. That should eliminate doubts expressed by critics that the scheme would be dominated by big catering companies, she said.

Actually it doesn’t. The majority of winners are still established companies. Wait six months and we will see if those seven small operators are still in business.

You see a similar serviceable idea being over-regulated behind the new premium taxi scheme. It will introduce 600 premium cabs to the city, but only three operating franchises are on offer, each with up to 200 taxis. That again makes it tough for small operators to win a franchise while automatically favouring big companies.

Hong Kong’s new food trucks: wonton noodles, halal Cantonese pastries, egg tarts and pork rolls soon on offer among 16 winning operators

That brings us back to the food trucks. What motivates officials like Tsang to come up with the scheme is probably the realisation that the city’s food scene is unexciting, unless you are ready to pay big bucks for celebrity chefs. Dai pai dong have all but disappeared, thanks to the government; high rents have killed many restaurants, leaving a market dominated by the big chains.

Before officials complain about our loss of competitiveness and entrepreneurship, they may reflect on how bureaucracy helps kill them.