28 October 2016
It is hoped policy makers can find a way to balance what the people want with vested interests as the new competition law takes effect. Photo: Reuters
It is hoped policy makers can find a way to balance what the people want with vested interests as the new competition law takes effect. Photo: Reuters

Uber and out?

Having lived in London where you need to take out a second mortgage to take a taxi ride home, one of the quality of life advantages of Hong Kong is its relatively cheap and easily accessible public transport. After a hard day, nothing beats a long line of red taxis with their lights on.

Except this does not apply during the changeover of shifts. So from about 4:15 to 5 p.m. you have no chance. And during rush hour, you’d be faster taking the train or bus.

Weekends are also tricky. Getting a cab between 12:20 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. is pretty much out. And then there are rainy days and picky drivers.

Enter Uber. Your on-demand driver willing to take you to your destination come rain, traffic and peak hours. At a price. A gap in the market existed, it has now been filled.

A million people use taxis every day. On those odd occasions where you can’t get one, having an alternative where you pay a premium surely cannot be a bad thing in the world’s freest economy.

Obviously, the government agreed – InvestHK made a resounding endorsement on its website, for a while at least. That is until the Uber vs the Transport Lobby debacle began to unravel and the dawn raids began.

If the latter gets its way, we will be back to standing in long lines in the rain.

An easy fix would be to set up a new licensing system. In the long run, demand for taxis is unlikely to wane significantly and it might even lure some private cars off the road if tai-tais and civil servants decide it’s cheaper to use Uber than have a chauffeur hang around Central all day.

Against the backdrop of the new Competition Ordinance coming into full effect on Monday (Dec. 14) it will be interesting to see if policy-makers try to make it work.

Perception wise, it looks bad to be running Uber out of Dodge just as the new competition chief polishes her badge.

The spirit of the new law is to “prohibit conduct that prevents, restricts or distorts competition in Hong Kong”.

In practice, the law itself doesn’t bind the government and the rules don’t apply to the majority of statutory bodies. Critics have decried its myriad exemptions.

The end result is a watered down version of what was initially envisaged and even the hardiest cynic could be forgiven for doubting that it will break up the cartels, eliminate price fixing and liberate consumers from the pricy shackles of living in a city dominated by monopolies.

To be fair, competition chief Anna Wu Hung-yuk has shown she can take on a fight. Twenty years ago she sat at the helm of the Equal Opportunities Commission. One of her most high-profile spats was to take on the Secondary School Places Allocation system which saw boys being given preference to girls.

Her tenure as competition tsar is going to depend on the strength of complaints made, the evidence available and a willingness to take on powerful interests.

It would be hoped that the competition watchdog could at least start with a bang to get things rolling. There are no shortages of complaints to be made.

And as the competition law kicks into operation, it can only be hoped that policy-makers meanwhile reconsider the Uber conundrum and find a way to balance what the people want with vested interests.

Our lives may not be about to change overnight when it comes to the city’s supermarkets, petrol, property, travel, gambling and other markets, but you could at least hope to get from A to B.

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EJ Insight contributor

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