Hong Kong’s decision to shut out Mong Kok street performers shows government-business relations are a mess

Stephen Vines says the closing of the Sai Yeung Choi Street South pedestrian zone shows that Hong Kong’s ‘pro-business’ politicians clearly favour some types of business over others

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2018, 1:44pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2018, 10:36pm

Rarely does an event occur that so perfectly tells us so much about the role of government, the role of business and how they impact citizens caught in the middle.

Members of the Yau Tsim Mong District Council almost certainly did not intend to provide us with an opportunity to contemplate this nexus, but should be thanked all the same.

About two weeks ago, they voted to shut down the pedestrian zone in the busy shopping area of Mong Kok’s Sai Yeung Choi Street South. They voted to do this to facilitate the removal of street entertainers whose activities have given rise to numerous complaints about noise and obstruction.

This hardly sounds as though it raises earth-shaking issues but, as ever, the big stuff is often hidden in the little stuff.

It should be noted that in Hong Kong government, district councils have no power to implement policies; they can only recommend measures that are then passed up to the central bureaucracy.

Mong Kok street performers can be an asset to Hong Kong, with some help

This is where the problem begins because, although strictly speaking this is not a transport issue, it will initially be dealt with by the Transport Department, then the Home Affairs Bureau will pile on, followed by the Planning Department and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, etc. Anyone who has ever dealt with the bureaucracy knows it is a many-headed hydra.

In my business, the not-so-humble food trade, we need to deal with the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, the Buildings Department, the police, the Fire Services Department and even the bureaucrats at Home Affairs. And then there are the other fine folk wielding clipboards from various government agencies, including the ironically named InvestHK.

But now Sai Yeung Choi Street, home to a great deal of retail business and given a boost by the introduction of a pedestrian zone in 2000, are asking, “What happens now?” Unfortunately for the retail trade, it seems likely that the “solution” to the pedestrian zone will negatively affect the trade.

Watch: Mong Kok musicians silenced

Why Mong Kok’s street performers are not music to the ears

Yet shopkeepers on the street were among those complaining most vocally about the buskers. Some shops even resorted to erecting noise barriers. But they were not, of course, looking for a solution that reduced pedestrian traffic and thus potential customers.

Which brings us to potential customers: members of the public. Some of them obviously liked the street entertainers or they would not have handed them their cash, others may simply have liked the atmosphere they helped create, while others hated it.

Meanwhile, what of the entertainers themselves, trying to earn a buck by getting out there and subjecting themselves to the ultimate test of any business – whether enough people will pay to make it worthwhile? Do they not also have a right to earn a living?

Why some Hong Kong buskers prefer playing in Tsim Sha Tsui over Mong Kok

There is quite an impressive conflict of interests here and solutions are not simple. However, we should bear in mind the following:

• A government that claims to be creating a level playing field for business has problems when it declares that one form of business is more needed than another.

• Is the role of government to cater for the interests of most people or to protect the interests of minorities?

• Where there are conflicts of interest, how are these to be mediated without causing unintentional damage?

The district councillors no doubt thought they did a good thing by addressing an issue that raised a lot of concern. However, it must be noted that those promoting this solution came from a party calling itself the Business and Professionals Alliance, yet it advocated a course of action likely to be inimical to business interests.

Other suggestions have been made to tackle this issue, including introducing a licensing system for performers, a regime of noise limitation and possibly the provision of better venues for this activity. However, such measures require more thought and must overcome the obstacle of a dysfunctional bureaucracy.

The councillors may have succeeded in curbing noise pollution and obstructions to the public thoroughfare but, as often happens when the lethal cocktail of politics and bureaucracy is dispensed, there is considerable collateral damage. Yet the reality is that, although you will keep hearing plaintive cries of “why not let businesses get on with business without government interference”, this is neither possible nor desirable in today’s complex societies.

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