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Three new Hong Kong think tanks promise to invigorate a crowded field

Think tanks have been part of the Hong Kong scene for years - now three newcomers promise to stir debate and bring real change

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 July, 2015, 6:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 July, 2015, 6:01am

Hong Kong has a profusion of think tanks but most analysts would be hard-pressed to recall their contribution - even during the height of the heated political debate over electoral reform in the past year.

Now, the scene is about to get more crowded. Three new think tanks are joining the stable of 30 that have been around for over a decade, prompting questions as to whether they can add vibrancy or will just as quickly fall into line as one of the also-rans.

The men behind the new initiatives insist their outfits will be different. Outgoing lawmaker Ronny Tong Ka-wah says his new Path of Democracy will aim to gather moderates to find a "third way" between the two polarised political camps to achieve universal suffrage and improve strained relations with Beijing.

"Mine is different from other traditional think tanks which focus on policy research," says Tong, who has been busy raising funds and arranging meetings with officials. He aims to run his think tank for at least three years with an annual operating cost of around HK$2 million.

Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing will join Tong on the think tank scene when he launches his Advocacy group next year. His think tank plans to actively promote ideas among the public to push for good policymaking and governance.

"Now our role will be different. We won't aim at bidding projects from the government but selling our policy ideas to the public," says Andrew Fung Ho-keung, chief executive officer of the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute who is helping Tsang.

Fung believes think tanks need to pursue new and aggressive thinking in delivering their ideas. "Creating a noise in society is very crucial," he says. "We will be the master of our own think tank and we set our own agenda. We won't be counting on someone or a particular political party for survival. All donations made to us must be unconditional."

The two newbies are entering the arena hot on the heels of the Our Hong Kong Foundation set up by the city's first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa. A gathering of 80 prominent figures from different fields, the foundation aims to build social consensus on political reform, boost social mobility for young people and groom political talent. It wants to "play an important role" in providing policy recommendations to the government.

The formation of all three is seen as an indictment of existing think tanks. Tsang himself said Hong Kong needed "high-quality" think tanks to bring deeper thinking to policy issues, while Tung described the existing think tanks as not being "very effective". Fung admits the old ones have had little impact.

The 30 think tanks today include self-funded ones and government-funded academic research institutes at universities. Private think tanks further different agendas but only a few appear to focus on pure policy research and analysis without any political affiliations. One notable exception is Civic Exchange, which has made its mark as a leading environment think tank with its many studies on pollution, solid waste, energy market and the small house policy.

Some think tanks are well-known for their strong ties with government heads. As they are mostly deemed as vehicles to strengthen politicians' power bases, the influence and public attention they gain are wedded to the fortunes of their leaders.

Among them are the Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre and the One Country Two Systems Research Institute. The research centre, favoured by former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, was co-founded in 2006 by Norman Chan Tak-lam, now chief executive of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority. It enjoyed the privilege of acting as government consultant with its research agenda during Tsang's era.

But last year it only published two research reports on the social mobility of young people and the population policy, compared with five study reports in 2007 when Tsang was re-elected.

It has also shown a marked shift in its choice of research topics, moving from macro and bold topics, including Hong Kong's socio-economic review, the impact of Beijing's 12th five-year plan on Hong Kong, creating a world-class Pearl River Delta metropolis, the future of the one-way permit, and Hong Kong-Taiwan economic ties, to local ones such as enhancing child support services and youth's mobility. During Tsang's era several of its policy ideas were adopted as government policies, such as setting up a multi-functional office in Taiwan for more cross-strait economic cooperation, the idea of a "rent-to-buy" housing scheme and the reverse mortgage programme for the elderly.

In comparison, the pro-Beijing One Country Two Systems Research Institute, co-founded by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in 1990, has in recent years engaged in macro-economic studies in line with Leung's policy ideas, such as the Lantau Island development, construction of artificial islands in central Hong Kong waters and Hong Kong-Guangdong cooperation.

However, its executive director Cheung Chi-kong, also an Executive Council member, says they prefer to keep a low profile to avoid courting controversy.

"There are many studies we haven't made public," he says, adding some are either commissioned by private organisations or the government. "I don't think there is a need to fight for public support or attention. For example, I don't want the idea of the restricted border zone development to be distorted as a backyard garden for Shenzhen. It will upset our researchers."

The reality, he points out, is that Hongkongers' enthusiasm for policy issues is only short-lived and any public discussion often turns into a political battlefield. "For any policy proposals, only the stakeholders are interested in taking part in public discussion, but their public views will easily trigger a political confrontation," he explains.

Part of the reason think tanks here tend to be tied with political figures is the problem of funding.

"It is very difficult for local think tanks to be self-reliant unless you're backed by tycoons or favoured by the government so you can easily obtain funding," says Professor Ho Lok-sang, director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies at Lingnan University.

Fung believes businessmen have little regard for policy research and hence will not support think-tanks. "Many only make money from financial investments which have nothing to do with government policies," he says. "Tycoons can also exert influence on the government through the back door. They don't need think tanks," he says.

A professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, Lui Tai-lok, chairman of SynergyNet formed by a group of academics, says the lack of party politics in the city makes it hard for think tanks to remain sustainable.

"With party politics, if you are close with the ruling party, you'll get a lot of funding for your research and the results will be actively promoted in the community," he says, adding even being close to the opposition means a think tank's research can still be used by the shadow government.

Others blame the government's non-responsive attitude for think tanks' stunted development, a far cry from the mainland and Singapore whose governments readily give funding.

Most recommendations also go into a black hole, critics say.

"I don't know if the officials just fling the reports into the farthest corner of their desk drawers. It may be the case that our proposals are too theoretical," Fung complains.

"But without their feedback, how can we improve our proposals to make them feasible? It needs back-and-forth discussion to perfect the proposals, otherwise all our efforts will go down the drain."

He blames bureaus and departments for being unwilling to receive ideas from others.

Ho agrees, saying very often the government has its own preconceived notions about a particular policy when other governments are more open to ideas from outsiders.

"Now the policymaking is only one-way and top-down. The health-care financing reform is a typical example. The government has been studying it for 20 years and commissioned different studies, but has still failed to arrive at a decision," he says.

Lui says it is the lack of a long-term vision in the government that has discouraged deeper thinking about long-term policies. "In the creation of an innovation and technology bureau - all along the government only focuses on how to get through Legco. But this is only a procedural matter," he says.

"It never raises the debate about the government's role - how it will enhance the innovation technology's development? What are the government's ideas to make the industry thrive?"

Despite the shortcomings, most critics see the need to create a culture for public debate in order to shape public opinion and generate solutions to the city's long-term problems.

"Local think tanks need to create an atmosphere for public debate so as to engage the public in constructive policy discussion instead of letting the public engage in endless political squabbling," says Fung.

The government also needs to be involved in the promotion of public debate by ditching its top-down approach, Ho suggests.

"Through public debate, the government will have a good grasp of the public pulse and then it can quickly identify the best policy proposal acceptable to most Hongkongers. This is the best and most effective way for policymaking," Ho says.

Fung sees hope in second-generation tycoons who are more willing to support think tanks. "They realise that Hong Kong is on the verge of losing its competitive edge. So they start to embrace new and innovative thinking for policymaking," he says. "Hong Kong has reached a critical point that desperately needs good policymaking and drivers to push for democracy, otherwise Hong Kong will only be running into a dead end. We need to rebuild Hong Kong!"