10 December 2018
Many taxi passengers may have been disappointed by Nicholas Yang (inset), who claimed Uber is illegal. Photo: HKEJ
Many taxi passengers may have been disappointed by Nicholas Yang (inset), who claimed Uber is illegal. Photo: HKEJ

Nicholas Yang needs to take a bold path with tech bureau

A month after its establishment, the Innovation and Technology Bureau appears to lack a clear roadmap on how it will support Hong Kong’s technological development and help boost the city’s competitiveness.

The agency’s chief, Nicholas Yang (楊偉雄), has displayed a short-sighted perspective and an eagerness to toe the official line, rather than take a bold and pragmatic stance, on key issues.

Evidence of this is his remarks Monday on matters related to car-hailing service Uber. 

Yang, who had been a senior tech sector executive before he joined the government, told a media gathering that Uber is posing a challenge to Hong Kong’s core value of rule of law.

The government shouldn’t allow an entity to breach the law first before mulling possible revision of the law, he said.

He noted that Uber cooperates with the government in the Singapore market, but is using a different approach in Hong Kong.

Now, let us look at what Yang said just a few months ago, in August, when he was yet to be appointed as the head of the innovation bureau.

At that time, he praised Uber’s operations for being innovative and pointed out that the business model helped the firm raise a great amount of capital despite the lack of solid assets.

Given this, why has he changed his mind now following his appointment as the tech bureau chief?

While we can only speculate, the answer appears to be this: Having got into the government, he is moving in step with the official line — that Uber is an illegal transport service provider as it violates the existing law in relation to regulation of the local taxi market.

Accusing the company of flouting the law, authorities had in the summer launched a crackdown on Uber by arresting some Uber drivers.

The company then said that it would “welcome an opportunity to work with the government to modernize regulations in order to accommodate technologies that will help make Hong Kong a more livable city.”

Having taken charge of the technology bureau, Yang should be focusing his efforts on improving the regulatory framework in the market and enable new tech-based businesses to function seamlessly.

But what he appears to be doing is toeing the line of the political leadership and protecting the interests of traditional businesses, even at the cost of consumers.

Many observers have pointed out that the government needs to ease the registration system to allow private vehicles for general passenger transport, rather than just maintain the number of taxi licenses, a move which has led to a shortfall in taxi services in the city.

While Yang toed the official line, he did acknowledge that his bureau needs to cooperate with other agencies to push for technology deployment in Hong Kong.

Now, the Uber issue offers the best chance for him to sit with the transport ministry and work out a good solution for mobile app-based new car-hire services.

While the government is sticking to the official line that Uber is illegal, the reality is that technology itself is neutral.

One should bear in mind the success of GoGoVan, a van-hailing service, which has won many fans among individuals and businesses.

Hong Kong’s leader Leung Chun-ying has fulfilled a pledge made during his election campaign in 2012 to have a dedicated policy bureau to direct the city’s technology development.

However, technology development needs a free-hand approach rather than direct government intervention, especially for new start-up ventures.

New firms are exploring business opportunities by riding on the integration of technology and the existing environment.

The government should not sit in judgment as to whether the new opportunities are legal or not; it should be left to the market forces to determine whether the services are needed. 

Authorities should change their mindset on technology development.

They should realize that technology development includes the process of developing a new service or new products, which have to be tested in the market before large-scale launch.

The government should take into account all the uncertainties arising during the developing process, and not just focus on the outcomes.

The new services and products can, of course, disrupt some existing business models.

The developers need a hassle-free environment to enable them to think out of the box and come up with new models that will benefit consumers. 

Government protectionism of existing businesses will only result in fewer choices for the common man. 

This is something that the new technology bureau and its chief, Yang, should bear in mind.

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EJ Insight writer

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