Just Once

Just once I want to hear a policy address that doesn’t put me to sleep or drive me to drink. Last week’s was a double whammy: within minutes I was drinking in my sleep.

To be fair, it was not a complete disaster. There were some parts I actually quite liked. But there were also some missed opportunities and some important areas completely omitted. Let us start with the good news. The section on land for housing seemed quite strong. I counted more than a dozen specific sites and categories of land (in the latter case, with multiple named locations) with indicative timing and identified development agencies. We now have a firm checklist against which we can measure government performance over the next decade. By the end of that period, we should as a community have made significant inroads into the overall shortfall of residential accommodation.

That is not a complete answer, of course. Far too many existing Hong Kong flats are disgracefully small (why no legislation on minimum size?) and some are in very old buildings in urgent need of redevelopment so we need land for decanting. I was therefore glad chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is still sticking to her guns on the need to study the Lantau Tomorrow vision.

The second encouraging area was the package of measures outlined to improve Hong Kong’s attractiveness for financial services in market segments such as private equity, insurance, wealth management, family offices, REITs etc. Reading some other sections of the speech, with its – perhaps excessive --emphasis on our role in boosting development of the Greater Bay Area, one gets the impression that some have started to see Hong Kong as little more than a major town on the fringes of an important technology city called Shenzhen. We are in fact one of the world’s most important international financial centres on a par with London and New York. It does no harm to remind some people of that.

Finally there were the proposals to redevelop the southern district of Hong Kong Island with a view to making the most of its natural beauty and heritage. The projects under the Invigorating Island South banner include the rebirth of Ocean Park and preservation of the Floating Jumbo Restaurant. As a former Tourism Commissioner, it sounds to me like an attractive and creative package. Well done to those concerned.

What were the opportunities missed? In my view, two jump right off the page. Soon Hong Kong will be the only major city in the world that does not permit Uber or similar services to operate legally. Not only that, the policy address contains a promise to stiffen penalties “to protect the interests of passengers”. I suppose we owe this reversal of the truth to propaganda maestros like Goebbels on the grounds if you are going to tell a lie may as well tell a whopper. Uber’s many clients in our city very much like the superior service the company provides, and see the existing restrictions as serving only the interests of the powerful taxi licence-owning lobby.

There is a vague promise that at some time in the future we will cease the sale of conventional fuel-propelled private cars. Why the delay? How about an action plan right now: from next 1 April first registration tax for electric vehicles will be 100%, for hybrids 200%, everything else 500%; starting 1 April 2030 we will cease to license or re-license all non-electric cars. There you go, job done.

Now for the complete omissions. The social distancing restrictions implemented to fight COVID-19 put a damper on the protest demonstrations that rocked the city last year, but that is only part of the story. Hong Kong has a constitutional obligation to enact national security legislation. Our failure over two decades to do so is mentioned in the policy address where it is described as a gap in national security. Not surprisingly in light of the social unrest with the possibility of foreign forces being involved, Beijing eventually lost patience and stepped in to give us its own version. But we still have to do ours. Lam has always deflected questions on the subject except to say it is not a priority. That is no longer good enough.

Similarly with extradition/rendition. We now know our legislation in this area is deficient, so what are we doing to fix it? The answer, judging by the silence in the policy address, is nothing. The national security law contains references to the possibility of trial in the mainland for serious cases. But there is no explanation anywhere as to how suspects would be arrested, or by whom, or the procedures by which such persons could be removed from Hong Kong. This is a grey area that cries out for clarification.

Finally there is the big one, political reform. Once again the address is silent. In a subsequent press conference Lam said the subject could only come back to life once social order had been restored. This is upside-down thinking at its finest. I have been in Hong Kong for nearly half a century. Throughout that time, politely but repeatedly, Hong Kong people have made clear that they want to have a greater say in selecting their political leaders. The promise in the Basic Law that we could move towards universal suffrage was warmly welcomed. Some progress was subsequently made but now the train is stopped in its tracks. Nobody except China’s enemies wants to see a return to Occupy or the unrest of the last 18 months. The best way to head off the danger is by at least opening the door to further progress in this area.

Overall the address has a few bright spots but some serious omissions. Much of it is a laundry list of routine government action. But it lacks something intangible – Hong Kong spirit? Vibrancy? Passion? What has Lam done with our Soul? Perhaps, like Tennessee Ernie Ford, she owes it all to the company store.