‘Crossing the river by feeling for the stones’. The phrase tends to be attributed to late leader Deng Xiaoping, who supposedly used it to describe his pragmatic approach to economic reform (like not worrying overly about the colour of a cat who catches mice or whether flies come in when you open the window). It conveys a willingness to achieve results while admitting a lack of necessary knowledge.
Down in Hong Kong, the leadership adopts a slightly more carefree approach that might be described as ‘winging it’, or just ‘making it up as you go along’. Two stories today illustrate this haphazardness, as applied to two areas most communities take seriously: schools and hospitals.
The problem – one of several – with the Big Lychee’s schools is medium of instruction. Former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, who is looking better with the passing of every day and is probably due for a revisionist historical treatment at some stage, decreed soon after the handover in 1997 that kids should be taught in a language they can understand. This outraged parents who wanted their children to attend (supposedly prestigious) English-medium schools, regardless of teachers’ or students’ ability to speak or read the language.
Tung at least partially stuck to his guns, and within 10 years mother-tongue teaching had become somewhat more accepted among the city’s lower orders – though there was still resentment that the rich and powerful ordering the new policy made damn sure their own precious offspring went nowhere near (traditionally losers’) Chinese-speaking establishments. With student numbers declining, however, schools grew desperate to attract parents, and pressure to regain an English-medium tag became irresistible.
So the government of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen broke down, and essentially let schools go back to teaching English during history and chemistry lessons, even though it doesn’t work. The reversal is called ‘fine tuning’. It’s bad enough that the education system is focused on rote-learning of facts to be repeated mindlessly in exams – but repeated mindlessly in an unlearned language?
This is ‘crossing the river then turning back and not bothering’.
The original idea was to encourage inbound medical tourism as a service export; this was to be one of six new activities officials decided should complement the four ‘pillar industries’ they had earlier earmarked as the foundation of our freewheeling market capitalist economy.
However, the bureaucracy’s desperate planners had failed to consider whether Hong Kong had a comparative advantage in this sector. The main Asian centres for medical tourism are India and Thailand, and their success is essentially due to their very low costs, which attract patients from high-price places like the US, Europe and… Hong Kong. Officials may as well have tried to make the Big Lychee into a hub for cheap plastic toys.
So they backtracked and mumbled hopefully about possibly pulling in mainlanders or others seeking niche services (boob jobs?) before bowing to reality, as articulated by David Ricardo 200 years ago. The plan now is to encourage investors to build new hospitals for the local market; in return for cheap land, the new facilities would have to offer a wide range of services, priced low enough to be accessible to the Hong Kong middle class, who currently clog up the virtually free public sector. (Or they go to Bangkok, so there’s a dash of import substitution here.)
There is a wide gap between our public and private hospitals in terms of fees and clienteles, and with demand rising, new mid-range options would be useful. But as is always the case when the Hong Kong government tries to attract investors into unviable industries through the lure of cheap land, there is a major tension. Companies bidding for the leases will be looking for loopholes: how to convert the unpaid-for value of the space into maximum profits while appearing to stick to the bargain struck with the government to serve social interests.
In the past (Cyberport, ‘green’ features in buildings, hotels that turn out to be apartments, etc) business has run rings around bureaucrats – so effortlessly that it has looked suspiciously like connivance. But public tolerance has worn thin, and top officials will be having sleepless nights if and when tenders start to come in. Maybe they will plead behind the scenes with non-profits to take an interest. One thing is certain: if any of the usual big names, like developers, submit bids, it will not be out of a desire to provide affordable health care to anyone.
This is ‘crossing the river by turning back and choosing a smaller one’.