Seven ways leaders of Hong Kong can be a force for radical change
Philip Bowring offers a winning agenda to address the wider public discontent, centred on making a clean break from vested interests. The question is, does anyone have the courage to act or is the city doomed to mediocrity?
Radicalism is the best way to head off the radical localists. For obvious political reasons, the government cannot do much to assuage them on Basic Law issues other than by not being so obviously prodded by the liaison office. What it can do to address the wider discontent of the people, spur entrepreneurship and modernisation, is to make a clean break from coddling vested interests.
Frankly, it is hard to imagine the likes of John Tsang Chun-wah, who has spent seven years pandering to them, becoming a force for change. But hope springs eternal.
Here is a to-do list, which in a free, popular vote would surely provide a competent candidate for chief executive with a winning ticket:
First, treat the Heung Yee Kuk for what it is – a feudal, sexist, thuggish organisation which has raped the New Territories to enrich its leaders, treated land and other laws with contempt and generally run roughshod over government. What kind of administration is it that treats the kuk as a political ally and connives with illegality?
In the hands of the likes of Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, law has been selective. Land shortage problems would be eased by forcing development of the brownfield sites created by the kuk’s friends, and abolishing the racket known as the small-house policy, created in the late colonial era to buy off the kuk. Compulsory acquisition of land for public purposes could also be extended to some of the hundreds of acres of “land banks” acquired by the handful of developer princes to underpin the land price escalation on which the government itself, unwilling to reform the tax system, is so reliant.
The extraordinary electoral success of Eddie Chu Hoi-dick is testament to the degree of popular resentment against what has rightly been seen as a silent conspiracy between government, the kuk and developers, with a little help from triads as required.
Second, stop mollycoddling private motorists. Parking in central zones is absurdly cheap by big city standards. Road pricing is still years away, more than 30 years after Singapore introduced it, but at least restore tunnel tolls to levels reflecting inflation – which would be HK$60 for the cross-harbour ones. And stop deliberately failing to enforce parking regulations, which leads to a police force seen as representing upper-income interests to the disadvantage of the majority. It is also an aspect of income maldistribution. Taxation of road (that is, land) use can help raise money for social programmes. Likewise, a hefty tax on electricity and gas usage would not only discourage wasting energy but redistribute income in a very simple manner without the need for complex value-added or consumption taxes. Land concessions for private clubs dating to the colonial era and when land was more plentiful provide another contrast to the lack of public and school sporting facilities.
Third, create competition in the taxi business. The likes of Uber provide an ideal opportunity to end the stranglehold of the cabal of taxi licence owners. Taxi policy has remained unchanged since the days when colonial-era turncoat Maria Tam Wai-chu headed the Transport Advisory Committee at a time when she was a major owner of licences. That she is now chair of the ICAC’s Operations Committee is yet another example of how old interests remain deeply entrenched in the system.
That points to the fourth measure – the need for another simple if brutal reform. Ban retiring senior civil servants from moving to any paid government-appointed job on any quasi-official body such as the Airport Authority, Trade Development Council or Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing. Let these people seek employment in the private sector, work for NGOs or simply enjoy the comfortable living provided by their pensions. The de facto size of the public sector contrasts with Hong Kong’s image. Instead of protecting existing interests, follow Margaret Thatcher and use government to open up to competition in utilities, airlines and the like. End special favours. Why is Cathay allowed to impose a fuel charge because it mismanaged its fuel hedging?
Fifth, stop pretending to be environmentally friendly. Set a real goal like catching up with Singapore within 10 years in water, waste, air, energy-saving and other benchmarks of advanced cities. That does not require money, just political will and a shake-up of the bureaucracy. Filibustering in the Legislative Council has become an excuse for inertia but is irrelevant to the issue of why public sector Hong Kong is now technologically backward.
Sixth, refuse to sanction any infrastructure project costing over HK$5 billion unless proven economically and preferably also commercially viable by genuinely independent analysis. John Tsang, scrooge towards the poor, should be ashamed of the tens of billions lost on unnecessary and improperly costed projects.
Finally, accept that Hong Kong’s demography (like most of East Asia) requires more spending on health and pensions than in the past, and less on pouring concrete. That may mean increasing the percentage of GDP taken by tax. But, it need not if the user-pays principle is actually enforced in areas other than public health and education.
Will any candidate for chief executive dare run with such a popular and forward-looking agenda? Or are we doomed to cautious mediocrity thanks to a system which is neither democratic nor decisive?
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator