Game over for Hong Kong

January 05, 2016 10:09
Rebooting Hong Kong won't do any good. We need to reinvent the city. Photo: CNSA

Is it game over for Hong Kong?

I have asked this question in two previous articles.

In a 2013 article, I wrote: “I do not think Hong Kong is 'game over'. But I do think we are in danger of becoming that.”

In a 2014 article, I wrote: “I asked in a previous column if it is 'game over' for Hong Kong. I now believe it is indeed game over for us if we compare ourselves to what we were.”

A year has passed since I wrote that. I have not changed my mind.

I still think it is game over for Hong Kong.

But let me explain what I mean when I say Hong Kong is game over.

I do not mean we are going to become a third-world city. We will remain a highly developed and wealthy city.

But we will no longer be the pride of Asia.

We will no longer excel and succeed in everything we do, like we did before.

We will no longer unite and put the overall interests of our society above our own interests when necessary, like we did before.

Our politics will not be driven by common sense but by divisive self-interest.

This divisiveness will produce political leaders who lack the conscience to do what is morally right for our society.

In fact, we are already seeing all of this now. I believe it will only get worse, not better.

The reason I believe it will only get worse is our political leaders are not making any effort to make it better.

They seem to prefer a chaotic and divisive political atmosphere to a rational one.

Without a doubt, we were once the pride of Asia, especially during the era of the four Asian Tigers.

The term refers to Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. The high economic growth rate of these four economies from the 1960s to the '90s was admired by the world.

Many considered British-ruled Hong Kong to be the most successful of the four Asian Tigers.

The economic models of these four Tigers were the envy of developing nations. Many other places tried to copy our road to success.

Can we honestly say today that Hong Kong is more successful than Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan?

Of course not.

To be brutally honest, we are the least successful of the four Tigers today.

We lose to Singapore virtually all the time in global surveys on housing standards, innovation, standard of English and quality of life.

We were once the most economically competitive city in China but lost the No. 1 position to Shanghai two years ago.

We are now in second place, but the latest survey warns that Shenzhen is poised to overtake us soon.

Shenzhen’s gross domestic product will overtake Hong Kong’s in the coming year.

We admire Korean TV dramas, Korean music and pop stars, but we have created nothing for others to admire.

Koreans don’t care too much about Hong Kong dramas or Cantopop.

We were far ahead of Taiwan in innovation, lifestyle and many other things, but now Taiwan even has a higher standard of English than Hong Kong.

When our first post-handover chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, tried to position Hong Kong as Asia’s world city in his 1999 annual policy speech in the Legislative Council, many wondered what he meant by it.

His administration explained that it meant making Hong Kong excel in areas such as innovation, quality of life, education and tourism, and become a coordinator of global economic activity so we could be on an equal ranking with such great cities as New York and London.

But a recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers showed Hong Kong ranked only 11th on livability out of 28 cities in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, behind Singapore and even Seoul.

Everyone knows our quality of life has plunged because of factors such as air pollution, housing unaffordability, which has forced families to live in subdivided homes, and the flood of mainland tourists.

Our tourism industry is in a mess, mostly because of our overreliance on mainland tourists.

Our universities have been dropping in global rankings, and our neighbors now far outperform us in innovation.

Our MTR was once the pride of Hong Kong and envied by the world.

Today, it has become the shame of Hong Kong. It is horrendously overcrowded, and every new project is delayed and over budget.

Far from being Asia’s world city, we are now a city in decline.

I believe Hong Kong has already reached its peak and is now on the way down.

We no longer have the political will, the competitiveness, the unity and the yearning to be No. 1.

We don’t have leaders who can bring us back up to our former peak.

It is hard to climb up. It is easy to fall down. Once you begin falling down, it is even harder to stop the fall.

That’s why I say I believe it’s game over for Hong Kong.

Our political system is largely to blame for our decline.

Hong Kong is neither a democracy nor a totalitarian city.

After the end of British colonial rule in 1997, we switched to a unique, executive-led political model under the "one country, two systems" principle.

The model allowed Hong Kong to continue as a free society governed by the rule of law, unlike mainland China, our new sovereign.

It worked for a while after the reunification but has now become so dysfunctional that it is the cause of our political polarization, stagnation and Legislative Council gridlock.

The executive is no longer able to lead, because the political model does not allow the chief executive to be the leader of a political party.

The political system allows half of the 70-member legislature to be directly elected and the other half to be indirectly elected through functional constituencies.

The proportional representation system of Legco direct elections means that candidates can win a seat with as few as 30,000 or 40,000 votes.

This has enabled candidates hostile to the government to win seats, creating an opposition with enough Legco members to vote down important proposals from the executive branch.

The model allows even a handful of hostile Legco members to derail government policies through filibusters and quorum calls.

In other free societies, ruling parties can overcome this, but since the chief executive cannot be a member of a party, there is no ruling party in Hong Kong.

The executive must depend on the support of our so-called pro-establishment Legco members, but these members are not always united.

Our political system is now so dysfunctional that it took over three years for the executive-led government to get Legco funding for a new Innovation and Technology Bureau.

Most countries updated their laws years ago to protect copyright in the internet age, but a copyright protection amendment bill has been stuck in Legco for years even though it meets international standards and is supported by western countries, including the United States.

Legco members in the democracy camp will continue to block the bill unless the government meets the demands of young netizens to make it even more liberal than international standards.

Opposition legislators are now so fearful of losing their seats in next year’s Legco elections that they have become hostages of young people who were politicized by Occupy Central and are now registering as voters.

The copyright bill and the technology bureau are not the only victims of our dysfunctional system.

New towns to solve the housing shortage, a dual immigration control point at the West Kowloon high-speed railway terminus and even landfill expansions have all become victims.

The chief executive is unable to even appoint council members at publicly funded universities without facing a mountain of criticism.

This opposition to everything that the executive-led government does is driven mostly by a reluctance of many Hong Kong people to accept and trust the one-party communist system of China.

Opposition politicians and a large sector of the local media feed on this mistrust to create even more mistrust by whipping up anti-mainland sentiment within the population.

They are far better at using mistrust to win hearts and minds than government officials, pro-establishment politicians, and the pro-establishment media are at using trust to win hearts and minds.

It is, of course, easier to ask Hong Kong people, who are so used to living in a free society, to mistrust a communist regime than it is to ask them to trust a communist regime that jails political dissidents, restricts freedoms and even bans popular internet sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

But our highly paid senior officials are now so devoid of leadership qualities and innovative new ideas to compete in today’s world that you can’t really blame Hong Kong people for having so little trust and so much contempt for the government.

When the number of mainland tourists to Hong Kong began to fall, the only idea our officials could come up with was a “Happy @ Hong Kong Super Jetso” campaign of discounts to promote shopping.

It was a stupid idea that failed miserably.

Now our highly paid financial secretary has come up with the idea of food trucks to promote tourism after watching a movie about food trucks.

Surely, such a senior official should be taking a macro view instead of proposing food trucks, which is not a novel idea and should be dealt with by far junior officials.

Would the finance ministers of Singapore or South Korea propose food trucks to promote tourism? Of course not.

It is too late to reboot Hong Kong and hope that will fix our problems.

We need to reinvent Hong Kong.

We need a new political system to get us moving again.

We can either have a less democratic and more dictatorial system, such as the successful Singapore model, where the executive-led government holds real power through a ruling party, or a more democratic system where the leader has a mandate from the people to rule.

Either system will be better and more effective than the one we have now.

But there are no signs that we will change our political system any time soon.

That’s why I believe it’s game over for Hong Kong.

The Chinese version of this article appeared in the January 2016 issue of Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.