24 October 2016
Activists wave a colonial flag in a protest against mainland parallel traders. The government has done very little in addressing the issue, other than making nativism the scapegoat. Photo: Internet
Activists wave a colonial flag in a protest against mainland parallel traders. The government has done very little in addressing the issue, other than making nativism the scapegoat. Photo: Internet

Economics of autonomy: How HK people are administering HK

Visitors willing to go beyond Hong Kong’s shopping precincts to delve deeper into the local community may agree that the city is like a sophisticated, well-constructed, well-oiled instrument that operates at high speed without a hitch.

This is quite evident in its efficient public transport system and government services.

A mature society like Hong Kong can be compared to a car in autopilot mode: it works on a meticulously pre-programmed sensing and navigation system.

But still, someone must be at the wheel at crucial junctures, and it won’t be way off the mark to conclude that the three post-handover administrations have all failed to steer the Hong Kong sedan to chart a new course.

Observers say Hongkongers lost their head in previous rounds of retail, tourism and property booms. When easy money flows in, no one thinks about blazing a new trail.

The city’s civil servants, while upright and professional, somehow lack the vision to move forward. After all, they are mere implementers rather than policymakers.

There’s no more guidance from London, and Beijing, while making sure that the special administrative region toes its line politically, remains largely hands off on most of the other fronts such as economy and lets Hong Kong people administer Hong Kong.

As long as issues don’t stand in the way of pulling in big bucks, the business elites and professionals, Hong Kong’s crème de la crème, are apathetic to public and governance affairs and never bother to have their inputs in consultations if the policy is not related to their business.

The city’s lack of political talent is all too apparent when “Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong” and “a high degree of autonomy” become the foundations of its post-colonial existence.

Thus, unsurprisingly, we have seen many blunders by the city’s well-meaning but inept indigenous leaders after 1997.

They have been not only unable to reinforce Hong Kong’s long-term development but have also failed to resolve issues that otherwise could have been turned into new opportunities.

Blunders and lessons

The SAR government sat idly by when streets and malls became overcrowded and issues began to emerge as tourists, particularly those coming from north of the border, swelled.

The inaction on the part of officials continued until after sporadic quarrels between locals and mainlanders developed into a political issue.

The SAR government then requested mainland authorities to slash quotas for the individual visit scheme, especially those from Shenzhen and other parts of Guangdong province.

But the consequence of this move is that tourism dollars started shifting to other destinations in the region.

Similarly, the government appeared to be the last one to know about the uproar against parallel traders and same-day shoppers.

Its knee-jerk reaction is an indiscriminate clampdown, a slamming of the door despite the mainlanders’ buoyant demand for Hong Kong products.

One thing to note is that goods taken across the border for resale are not of the contraband type; they’re not against the law.

The trade continues, however, although mainly taken over by some Hongkongers who see a new opportunity in the cross-border business.

Some have, belatedly, suggested a wholesale mall in border areas to tap the retail boom while minimizing the disturbance to locals.

Such a no-frills shopping facility is now under construction in Lok Ma Chau but the opening date has been repeatedly delayed.

The authorities’ move to restrict the cross-border trade of baby formula is perhaps the most ill-advised of the moves taken by a city that is known for its free port status.

It’s baffling to see the government promulgating new legislation to criminate anyone who takes a large quantity of powdered milk out of Hong Kong rather than making it easier for local retailers and distributors to gain enough supply to meet the huge demand from both local and mainland consumers.

Some commentators have long pointed out that the ban contradicts the Basic Law, which stipulates in Article 115 that the SAR “shall pursue the policy of free trade and safeguard the free movement of goods, intangible assets and capital”.

Others may say Hong Kong doesn’t have the capacity to meet the demand for consumer goods of an entire nation, but why hand such tremendous economic opportunities to others on a silver platter?

Isn’t it exactly Hong Kong’s expertise as a free trade entrepot to serve huge markets?

The infant formula symbolizes a great contradiction in China’s economic might and status as the world’s factory. 

Its citizens, particularly the middle class, have to look elsewhere to satisfy their growing needs for safe food, quality medical services and healthcare, and world-class education.

Standing on the doorstep of this massive market, Hong Kong has everything to gain in meeting this demand, but only if it won’t stifle its own development.

Most of the non-political travails in cross-border relations can be a blessing in disguise for Hong Kong retailers and industries, an opportunity to boost the city’s economy and livelihood.

But for the city, it’s a gleaming trophy hiding in plain sight.

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"Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong" is a great post-handover principle, but the city has yet to groom its own political talent that can steer. governance at crucial junctures. Photo: GovHK

On many non-political fronts, such as retail and tourism, the post-handover leaders have largely failed in turning the mainland’s buoyant demand into opportunities. Photo: GovHK

A government poster at the Lo Wu checkpoint warns against carrying excessive baby formula products across the border. Photo: Internet

EJ Insight writer

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