Lawmakers should stop CY Leung from expanding govt power

November 16, 2015 15:35
(From left) CY Leung, Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce chairman Pang Yiu-kai and Shui On Group chairman Vincent Lo discuss China's One Belt, One Road strategy in an event last month. Photo: HKEJ

More than one and a half years away from the next chief executive election, Leung Chun-ying appears to be busy preparing the policy platform for his second term of office.

This time, he is seeking to establish a dedicated agency to oversee the city's maritime business.

The proposal could spark a fresh round of debate on the role the government should play in economic development.

Leung on Sunday said the government is in the process of setting up a Maritime Authority, which is aimed at enhancing Hong Kong's port sector and related businesses.

Speaking at an event organized by the Financial Services Development Council, the chief executive said the government is studying whether it should be a statutory or non-statutory authority.

Leung said maritime insurance, ship leasing and financing all provide lucrative jobs, but Hong Kong is not doing much in the area of maritime finance.

He said the government has a role to play in developing this business, adding that the city wouldn’t be able to fully exploit its status as a financial center by leaving everything to the market.

What Leung is saying that he doesn't trust the market too much, and the government can achieve its policy goals through direct intervention in the free market economy.

Leung is a strong believer of big government. He wants the government to play a key role in economic development.

And under his administration, Hong Kong's economic policy is to follow Beijing's economic work plan.

Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China is sparing no effort in promoting its One Belt, One Road strategy.

The policy involves the establishment of a New Silk Road Economic Belt, which will link China with Europe through Central and Western Asia, and a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which will connect China with Southeast Asian countries, Africa and Europe.

"Neither the belt nor the road follows any clear line, geographically speaking," according to an official statement on the plan. "They serve more as a roadmap for how China wants to further integrate itself into the world economy and strengthen its influence in these regions."

What is clear is that One Belt, One Road will be China's core diplomatic and economic plan for the next decade.

Beijing has said many times that Hong Kong should seize the opportunity to play a major role in such a macro environment. That could be the reason why Leung is spearheading the move to develop the maritime business sector.

But can the government set the economic direction of Hong Kong? Does it have the power to accurately predict the future of our economy?

In 2001, the government organized a trip for Hong Kong's tycoons to visit China's western region in a bid to encourage them to invest in the largely underdeveloped region in line with Beijing's Western Development Plan. 

However, the tour did not result in any significant investments by the city's business elite in the region.

As one of the world's major financial centers, Hong Kong has always been self-motivated in finding the best locations to grow its fortunes. Government policy hardly plays any role in this respect.

In another example, the government introduced a policy aiming to cash in on the Islamic financial market.

It encouraged the business community to develop financial products aimed at meeting the demand in Islamic states such as Malaysia and countries in the Middle East.

However, the market response to Islamic financial products has been lukewarm. On the other hand, there has been much enthusiasm toward renminbi products as China steps up in market-opening efforts.

The government's recent action to arrest drivers of Uber, a car-hailing company, because they don't have a license to operate is another instance that manifests the government's backward mentality when it comes to taking advantage of new, groundbreaking technology.

Instead of being a facilitator, the government focuses on its role as a regulator.

All this shows that the government should not take a leading role in economic development for the simple reason that bureaucrats are hardly known for their business sense. Unlike investors and entrepreneurs, they simply don't have a feel of the market.

Hong Kong has been playing a key role in the global maritime industry for a long time, given the strategic location of its Victoria Harbour. The city has long been engaged in maritime-related business activities and does them pretty well.

So why do we need to set up a new government body to implement a policy that has long been undertaken by the private sector? Is this another brilliant idea from our Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Gregory So?

Instead of creating a new government body to develop our maritime business, the government can reorganize its bureaucratic structure to enhance the efficiency of related government departments and improve their coordination.

If Leung wants to revamp the government structure, he should review the operations of the different bureaus without expanding their existing powers under the law, rather than adding more departments based on Beijing's policy agenda.

Our lawmakers have an important role to play in preventing CY Leung from creating another useless bureau or authority which will only siphon off taxpayers' money for the remuneration of its officials and staff.

Here's another opportunity for the Legislative Council to prove that it is no mere rubber stamp of the administration.

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EJ Insight writer