Train of Thought

They say that travel broadens the mind, an expression normally credited to something written by Mark Twain. The full version reads “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

One of the saddest aspects of the mainland authorities’ decision to refuse most pan democrats their Home Return Permits is that it denies them easy access to the rest of China. Thus they cannot see for themselves all the exciting things happening there. The corresponding refusal by the pan dems to take advantage of occasional official visit invitations just perpetuates the vicious circle of ignorance.

A recent journey to Beijing by high speed train brought home to me just how much enlightenment and opportunity for knowledge is being lost. The launch pad for the trip is the dedicated station in West Kowloon. The co-location arrangement for immigration facilities, despite the controversy over its birth, works smoothly: security, exit Hong Kong, enter the mainland, all over in a trice. Despite confident predictions by some at the time that the building would quickly become the kidnap hub of the SAR, as plain clothes mainland agents spirited struggling dissidents out of the city, there was no sign of anything sinister or untoward. The “border” itself is actually a thick yellow line painted on the floor.

The journey was incredibly smooth and comfortable (full disclosure: we paid a little extra to go middle class) with wide seats and plenty of legroom. It was possible to read or doze or just enjoy the scenery flashing past outside the window. When required, a spotless and odourless restroom was available. The overall experience compared well with air travel to the same destination.

A display panel at the front of the carriage showed the speed – for long stretches, over 300 kilometres per hour -- or otherwise there would have been little sensation of it. Total travel time was nine hours. The most frequently asked question on return was “where did you change” but the answer flummoxed the enquirers “we didn’t. It was city centre to city centre on the same train”.

An interesting episode occured soon after departure. A cup of coffee was ordered and a 100 RMB note offered in payment. None of the staff could provide change. Apparently, normal practice was to pay by phone. Not to worry, a call was made to the next station and another staff member would board who could handle cash.

The arrival in Beijing could not have been simpler: no need for immigration of course, and the luggage was already with us, so straight into the taxi queue. Thereafter throughout the stay all transportation within the city was by “Didi”. A few taps of the phone, arrival time and vehicle registration number would appear on screen. Another tap on the phone, agreed fare paid automatically. If only Hong Kong permitted such ride-hailing services to be provided legally. Instead the Transport Bureau persists with protecting the taxi cartel and offering instead a premium service at a much enhanced fare.

It is impossible to return from such a trip without wanting to find out more. How many of our legislators, for example, know that China has built 29,000 kilometres of high speed track which represents two thirds of the world total? Yes, our country has twice as much suitable track as the rest of the world added together. How many of them know the mainland’s rail system last year carried 3.3 billion passengers, more than two billion of them by high speed train?

Twenty years ago, Hong Kong was way ahead of the mainland in most aspects. Now we are in danger of falling behind. Part of the problem is resistance to change, a determination to defend vested interests. I have already touched on the taxi/Uber scandal. But what kind of community would stand idly by while the medical profession with great reluctance offered only a grudging easing of entry to foreign-trained doctors but still maintaining the licentiate exam requirement? What kind of thinking lay behind the decision to block a new entrant low cost airline establishing a base here even though it operates smoothly throughout the rest of the region, while permitting the self-styled home carrier to buy up its only local rival (HK Express) thus maintaining and even extending its monopoly?

In a similar setting, Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son said “To protect the past, they are denying the future”. Of course there are aspects of life where most people here would regard our city as still being superior, the classic example being the legal system and rule of law. Hence the controversy over extradition proposals which the administration seems hell bent on ramming through without allowing sufficient time for thorough scrutiny.

It is time we threw open the doors to competition and lived up to our sobriquet of the world’s freest economy. If we continue to bury our heads in the sand, we do not deserve to prosper. As was emphasised at a recent seminar on how to revive the prospects of the Hong Kong container port “Denial is not a business strategy”. Nor is it a political one.

The administration needs to take the time to win back the trust of the people. The Central authorities should be supporting that effort, not undermining it. And the pan dems need to learn more about the mainland. All aboard!