Carrie Lam’s policy plan boldly follows the government’s tradition of protecting the status quo
Philip Bowring says the few good ideas proposed by Lam, such as revising tunnel toll fees, should have been put in place long ago. Meanwhile, many of Hong Kong’s perennial problems touching on government and business interests were, again, left untouched
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor proclaims that her policy speech shows toughness and disregard for popularity. Well, two cheers for raising central and eastern harbour tunnel tolls, but why has such a necessary move been delayed for so long?
And what is so tough about an impost which affects maybe a quarter of the 8 per cent of Hongkongers who own cars and regularly use the tunnels? What, also, is tough about using taxpayers’ money to subsidise users of the western tunnel, another example of pandering to the motorist minority (of whom I am one) by a civil service over-provided with parking spaces and official cars.
The government also protects the cosy developer-linked monopoly, Autotoll, which collects a high fee for its service through almost all the tollways that are government-owned. Such high fees deter many drivers from using electronic payment, necessitating the use of manned booths and thus raising government collection costs. Electronic tolls should be free and compulsory.
What is tough about the constant use of subsidies here and there to address issues which should be none of the government’s concern? Building owners are responsible for the safety of their lifts. They should pay, not the public. What is tough about a ban on e-cigarettes other than showing Lam to be the nanny-state personified?
Watch: Highlights of Carrie Lam’s policy address 2018
What is tough about a publicity-seeking announcement to build artificial islands totalling 1,700 hectares which might ease a housing shortage a generation from now, while offering only minor policy initiatives to deal with the problems of today and tomorrow?
What we have is a vision backed by minimal evidence of serious thinking about economic return, environmental impact, demographic projections or arrangements post-2047 – let alone the current push to integrate with the so-called Greater Bay Area of 70 million people. Conveniently ignored as well is that residential space per person has been rising slowly, but it is the distribution that has been so skewed.
The vision talk appears a rushed attempt to pre-empt the Task Force on Land Supply. It also diverts attention from the government’s unwillingness to use its powers to acquire agricultural and brownfield land for public housing, or force developers to develop. Talk of private-public partnerships is just a surrender to the developers.
Tough policies also do not include ending the monstrous waste of land set aside for the small-house policy. The Heung Yee Kuk’s sexist pork barrel rolls on and on.
Does the government want land prices to fall, even a little, let alone to levels which would increase affordability when interest rates are rising? The Lands Department withdrew a HK$48.5 billion Peak plot on the grounds of not reaching its reserve price.
So, do market forces not apply? Or does the government believe there was a quiet cartel among the few developers big enough to bid? If the government was serious about reducing its stranglehold, it would have sold this – and other – land in smaller parcels to enable smaller developers to bid.
Some strangleholds go back a long way but point to collusion between civil servants and developers. The recent decision of Hong Kong Resort Company, the developer of Discovery Bay, to evict boat-dwellers from its marina was a reminder of how Cha Chi-ming, a textile magnate from Shanghai, came to get control.
The original developer, Edward Wong Wing-cheung, of what was supposed to be a holiday resort – with hotels and a public golf course – was foreclosed by the Soviet-controlled Moscow Narodny Bank. This alarmed the government, which engineered the acquisition by Cha.
The development rules were quietly changed on several occasions, and without payment, to enable what became a vast private fiefdom, now with 19,000 residents. Only in 2004 did the auditor-general get around to investigating events, severely chastising the government. But, by then, it was water under the bridge.
Civil servant and corporate immunity is also suspected in a recent decision by pro-government members of the Legislative Council to keep secret a report, ordered by the transport secretary in 2013, on the 2012 Lamma ferry disaster which killed 39 people.
According to an earlier exhaustive report of the Commission of Inquiry on the disaster, so many died because the Lamma IV ferry sank very quickly due to the failings of boat builders and the Marine Department to abide by basic rules on stability and watertight bulkheads. The ferry owner and operator, HK Electric, avoided crewing and life jacket requirements.
Most of the blame for the tragedy was shifted onto the skipper of the Sea Smooth, the vessel that collided with Lamma IV, who was jailed for eight years, and a Marine Department official for failing to implement life jacket regulations.
But of higher-level departmental or corporate responsibility for the vessel itself, there has been no sign. Nor will there be while the civil service shows just how tough it can be – at self-protection.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator