Lulu to city: “You’re run by idiots”

By the grim standards of mainland officials at the time, Lu Ping was an all-round good guy when he served as Beijing’s top man in Hong Kong from 1990 up to the handover in 1997.  So who can fail to be touched by his wistfulness in today’s South China Morning Post?


Hong Kong should stop relying on favours from Beijing and improve its competitiveness, says Lu …

“While the central government has been offering policy favours for Hong Kong, you can’t ask Shanghai and other cities not to develop as a means to maintain Hong Kong’s edge. Hong Kong people should have a sense of crisis and strive to enhance the city’s competitiveness through their own efforts…” he said…

The central government has endorsed Shanghai’s goal of becoming an international financial centre by 2020, and Shanghai is developing Yangshan, a deep-water port [which] would be a major rival to Hong Kong’s port operations when its third phase was completed next year, since its handling charges were much lower than Hong Kong’s…

Lu, now 82, said neither the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement launched in 2003, nor the scheme allowing mainlanders to visit Hong Kong on their own rather than in tour groups, which began the same year, could resolve the city’s fundamental economic problems.

Apart from those last four words, it is mostly standard fare: myths and misunderstandings that seem to have become received wisdom over the years.  Beijing’s much-vaunted favours to Hong Kong are mostly symbolic or irrelevant, and seem to be designed to nurture a sense of humility and gratitude – helplessness, even – into the city’s once-confident people.

CEPA, in theory a free-trade agreement, is an inflated public relations gimmick; most of the trade and investment taking place “under its auspices,” as officials carefully put it, would be happening anyway.

The decision to allow more mainland tourists to visit Hong Kong is simply part of a bigger deregulatory process covering travel to Southeast Asian destinations and elsewhere.  And it is no act of magnanimity.  For all we know (the government has never done a cost-benefit analysis) mass-scale, come-shop-leave tourism destroys as many jobs as it creates.  Landlords and brand-label licensees pocket the cash, while the rest of us suffer the higher rents, congestion and air pollution.

As for Shanghai becoming an international financial hub by official diktat…  That would take a freely convertible currency, its value at the mercy of foreign markets.  It would need rule of law, and an independent judiciary beyond the control of the Communist Party.  A free press, ditto.  Clusters of world-class financial, accounting, legal and other talent to fill up all the empty space in those ugly skyscrapers.  The Smiths did a song about Shanghai.

And where did this idea come from that a port in City A threatens another deep-water facility in City B 750 miles away as the crow flies, or three days’ sailing time by cargo ship?  And why are we supposed to want our streets full of trucks carrying containers anyway?

So it’s mostly the usual bilge that our local officials here in the Big Lychee repeat over and over, to the point that it occurs to you, with a sudden sense of dread, that they might actually believe it.  However, the SCMP also reports that…

Lu is … critical of local officials – saying that many are incapable of independent thought, having been trained during the colonial era merely to implement policies dictated by their British superiors…

“There is an urgent need for Hong Kong to speed up economic restructuring….” Lu said.

This isn’t part of the official Hong Kong-needs-Beijing-charity, Shanghai-will-take-over mantra.  This is Lulu, a sweet old man in his 80s, still very bright but prone to occasional moments when he wanders off-script and blurts out the truth.  Our local bureaucrats are good administrators, but they can’t get conceive of reform, of new ideas.  To chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, government must just build more roads and bridges, as if it was still the 1970s.  Financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah’s idea of a bold policy initiative is to turn the Big Lychee into a wine hub, or an Islamic banking hub.  His recent heart attack was nothing: suggest scrapping the high land price policy, or using our bloated fiscal reserves for something, and his brain would seize up.

And who put them in charge?  We have 7 million people, at least a few of whom are pretty smart.  The SCMP could have asked Lulu why, in his opinion, Beijing forces Hong Kong to suffer this rule by incompetents.  Next time, maybe.

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