14 November 2018
Hong Kong is losing its glow when the efficiency of doing things is gone, and neighboring rivals are fast catching up. Photo: Bloomberg
Hong Kong is losing its glow when the efficiency of doing things is gone, and neighboring rivals are fast catching up. Photo: Bloomberg

Indecision and inaction holding back Hong Kong

During an annual results conference a few years ago, CLP Holdings chairman Michael Kadoorie took a dig at the Hong Kong government.

“On those few clear days when I can look across the harbor from my office in Central, I see the West Kowloon reclamation and the site of the old Kai Tak Airport,” Kadoorie said. “Both have been lying vacant and unused for many years.

“If the speed and efficiency of decision-making and implementation by CLP in managing and operating the electricity supply system for Kowloon and the New Territories had matched those standards, I would be speaking to you today in darkness.”

Kai Tak and West Kowloon

Other than a public housing development and a cruise terminal that is in the middle of nowhere, Kai Tak has barely changed for nearly two decades since the city’s old airport was decommissioned in July 1998.

Think Hong Kong lacks land? Just look at Kai Tak.

The large swathe of emptiness where weeds run riot in the heart of Hong Kong contrasts very unfavorably to the pearlescent harbor and the neighboring legions of high-rises.

In Kai Tak’s post-airport era, judicial reviews and legal back-and-forth over rezoning and reclamation consumed its first ten years and the government’s own procrastination and red tape have wasted another.

Now we have officials spouting fancy plans like a grand sports hub and commercial and hotel complexes but no one knows if and when all these will become reality.

West Kowloon reclamation on the other side of the peninsula has turned into another urban eyesore, though about 20 years ago the government unveiled its lofty vision for a world-class cultural district in the area.

Like the fate of almost all other major developments in the territory, the project has since been beset with controversies, cost overruns and delays.

Our only hope is that we won’t have to wait for another ten years before some permanent structures are erected there.

‘Epic’ decline

Mainland cadres are known for talking gibberish on Hong Kong affairs but former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji (朱鎔基) once had some quite apt remarks on the incapability of the Tung Chee-hwa administration: Indecision after lengthy discussions and inaction even if there’s a resolution (議而不決,決而不行).

It has been 11 years since the embattled Tung stepped down in 2005, yet we haven’t seen any pickup in efficiency under the stewardship of the next two successors.

Hong Kong’s overall competitiveness has been in an “epic” decline.

Suffice it to say that the chronic political impasse is holding the city back on many fronts, and apportioning the blame has become every politician’s favorite game.

Yet those concerned about our city’s future need to acknowledge one simple truth: the key to competitiveness is for the government to get things done – quickly.

Though filibustering and lengthy legal battles may pose hurdles – and yes, the opposition camp is also good at fault-finding – let’s just admit that when it comes to development and infrastructure, it is the government that must take the leading role.

Hongkongers won’t always be fooled by officials’ tried and true tactic of using the Legislative Council and the judiciary as scapegoats for their own incompetence.

Biting the dust

In Singapore, bulldozers and sand barges were soon at work creating new chunks of land out of the sea after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong unveiled an aggressive plan for further reclamation.

On the other hand, Hong Kong’s fancy plans for land production off eastern Lantau Island, dubbed “East Lantau Metropolis”, remains on paper.

It took MTR Corp. (00066.HK), of which the government is the controlling stakeholder, more than five years, including one year of delay, to finish the 2.6-kilometer Kwun Tong Line Extension to Whampoa in Hung Hom.

Shenzhen used the same amount of time to complete three subway lines totaling more than 100 km.

Shenzhen metro’s total length of 285 km has dwarfed that of MTR (220.9 km), and note that our neighboring city didn’t begin constructing subways until 1998, two decades after Hong Kong inaugurated its first line in 1978. That sort of speed has put Hong Kong to shame.

After five years of opposition and debates, Hong Kong has finally started preparatory work for the HK$141.5 billion third runway, slated to open in 2023. We hope and pray there will be no further delays.

Across the border, planes will be taking off in two years’ time from the fifth runway at Shanghai Pudong International Airport.

Pudong was opened a year after Chek Lap Kok in 1999 and since 2005 Shanghai has already added three runways to the airport. There is another a dual-runway airport, Hongqiao, right at the heart of the city.

The two airports handled over 81 million passengers last year, 13 million higher than Hong Kong’s corresponding figure.

“Over the past decade, there has been too much controversy and too little consensus,” then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen said in his 2007-08 policy address.

“Time and opportunities have passed us by while we got caught up in endless debates.”

In the speech he exhorted Hong Kong to promote economic development through infrastructure projects and community development through revitalization.

Fast-forward to ten years later, and we will leave the question for our readers to decide: whether the situation has improved at all in today’s society, or have we just idled through another decade, resting on past laurels?

At some opportune moments, Hong Kong must act quickly to get things done, from conception to implementation.

The opposition camp needs to cooperate with the government rather than politicizing every agenda while the latter must not shy away from its prime obligation of leadership.

Hongkongers must also regain the stamina to move the way forward. After all, we are all on the same boat.

Just like Kadoorie has said: “My background and my own experience allow me to say that there are no limits to what Hong Kong people can achieve once their own energy is released.

“Our city has the potential to be a world city in Asia, a regional center for excellence in education, financial services, environmental technology, medical services, information systems and much else.

“The capabilities of Hong Kong people are such that the list is as long as we choose to make it.”

– Contact us at [email protected]


Read more:

The 2047 endgame? It’s the economy, stupid

It’s been almost two decades since the decommission of the old airport, but Kai Tak has barely changed. How many more decades can Hong Kong afford to idle through? Photo: WiNG/Wikimedia

Shanghai is revving up construction of the fifth runway (farthest right) at its Pudong airport, which was opened a year after Chek Lap Kok but now already has four runways. Photo: Google Maps

Expansion of Shenzhen’s subway network since 2004. The city now has longer subway lines than Hong Kong. Photo: Terramorphous/Wikimedia

EJ Insight writer

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