‘Smart city’ the priority, but my hands are tied on car pooling and sharing, Hong Kong technology minister says
Nicholas Yang says only transport officials can make policy and legislative decisions to promote firms like Uber
The technology minister has said that while his top priority is turning Hong Kong into a “smart city”, his hands are tied on promoting car pooling and sharing and only transport officials can legislate to encourage the practices.
Secretary for Innovation and Technology Nicholas Yang Wei-hsiung said on Monday that his bureau would continue to communicate on the issue with the Transport and Housing Bureau, which was in a better position to make a policy decision.
His comments follow the recommendations of a study released last month by the IT bureau which said car pooling should be promoted as a key part of the government’s technological push to “build a smart city” to boost the economy and living standards.
“If the law needs to be amended, it should be done according to the procedures,” Yang said. “But whether to amend the law is a decision for the relevant bureau to make ... and we are willing to keep in touch with the Transport and Housing Bureau on that.”
While car pooling services in the city are legal, the Road Traffic Ordinance prohibits the carriage of passengers for hire or reward without a permit – essentially outlawing businesses such as car-hailing services provider Uber.
Despite repeated calls from Uber for it to be properly regulated so it can operate legally, the government has refused and insists it must abide by the current law that limits the number of hire car permits to 1,500 and does not cater to its business model.
Airbnb and Gobee.bike, home and bike sharing operators, also pose regulatory challenges for the government and have become a headache for other providers in those markets.
Yang warned in June that “anyone operating illegal business in the name of the ‘sharing economy’ is unacceptable”.
The minister said on Monday that Uber’s business model was “innovative, but illegal”.
“You can share a rarely used car owned by you, but sharing is not ‘the sharing economy’,” he said. “The sharing economy is about collective excellence through the sharing of resources and wisdom, as opposed to individual excellence in the market economy.”
Yang also said people should not be too “obsessed” with the issue of Uber as its business model could be replaced in a few years’ time as technology advances.
Hongkongers should instead pay more attention to the achievements of local start-ups, researchers and scientists, he said.
Yang revealed that to further encourage innovation in the city, the government would be launching a HK$2 billion Innovation and Technology Venture Fund next month to co-invest with private venture capital funds in technology start-ups.
The fund was first announced by then Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying in his policy address in January last year.
Earlier this month it was announced that 28-year-old Lillian Cheong Man-lei, who works for property giant New World Development, would become Yang’s political assistant. She was the youngest among 18 second-tier government officials appointed on August 1.
But critics questioned her credentials as Cheong has no relevant background in innovation and policy lobbying.
Defending his choice on Monday, Yang said Cheong had been involved in the property developer’s innovation and technology overhaul.
“It was difficult to persuade [the company’s] subsidiaries to reform, and she was involved in a lot of projects in the community as well,” Yang said.