“The incapacity of a weak and distracted government may often assume the appearance, and produce the effects, of a treasonable correspondence with the public enemy.”
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon, Chapter 31
Our planning officials are in no doubt that Central desperately needs yet another oh-so-original skyscraper/car park/shopping mall complex on the old Government HQ site overlooking Central. The Institute of Planners, among others, begs to differ and points out various flaws in the bureaucrats’ thinking. Meanwhile, last night, I had a very strange dream.
I was sitting unobtrusively and, indeed, ignored to one side at the end of a large and expensive-looking conference room with a fine view of the harbour. Several dozen self-important men in suits, plus a few refined but understated women, were sitting around three sides of a long table, quietly chatting, playing brick games on Blackberries or filling in air-conditioning allowance claim forms. A door near me suddenly opened and Hong Kong’s visionary Chief Executive, Donald Tsang, confidently strode in and sat himself down at the head of the meeting. He opened a file of papers and looked up at everyone.
“Colleagues,” he began. “It will soon be 2011, my last full year of office. I was thinking during the Christmas holiday what would happen if, rather than be a lame-duck administration, we turned a couple of our most treasured policies completely on their heads. What would the effect be if we did the exact opposite of what we are currently doing? This is what they call ‘thinking out of the box’, I believe.”
Thirty or so senior civil servants sat silent and frozen, staring wide-eyed at Donald, mouths agape. It was beyond shock; it was horror. It was if he had told them he had spent the long weekend indulging in non-stop goat-sodomizing devil-worship with Emily Lau.
“First of all,” he continued, “let’s think about the tourism industry. What would happen if we clamped down on cheap package tours, raised hotel taxes, implemented a VAT on luxuries and took other measures to halve the number of tourists from this year’s likely 35.5 million? Designer label stores would close, and guides, retail and hotel staff would lose their jobs. But it would free up lots of commercial space in urban areas. Shop rents would fall. Local small entrepreneurs would be able to open new sorts of businesses serving the needs of our own residents. They would hire as many people as had lost their jobs. The streets would be less crowded and polluted; Hongkongers would have better and more convenient shopping choices. Apart from foreign luxury brands, who would lose?”
My ears popped slightly as the petrified bureaucrats took a collective sharp intake of breath. Everyone knew the answer: the landlords, and no-one else.
“Second,” Sir Bow-Tie continued, “what about pedestrianisation? You transport planners over there have always maintained that we must keep the traffic moving at any and all costs. But let’s say we reversed that. Let’s say we put pedestrians first; reserved road space for busses and cyclists, and banned cars and goods vehicles from most parts of the urban areas during daytime. What would happen?”
The civil servants around the table looked like they had been slapped in the face: they would have to take the MTR to work with all the riffraff.
“We would have to increase public transport capacity,” Donald allowed. “Many businesses in congested areas would have to move or close because they couldn’t adjust to getting deliveries only at night-time. For example, Allan Zeman in Lan Kwai Fong would probably have to convert some of his lucrative office portfolio to money-losing storage space, so the bars could keep more inventory on-site rather than have suppliers’ trucks clogging the place up every day. But again, freed-up space would open more opportunities to new sorts of business. Sidewalk cafes! For every job lost, another would be created. The air would be clean. Apart from the landlords and a few businesses that shouldn’t be downtown – plus mollycoddled oafs who lose face if they’re not in an Alphard or Mercedes – who, really, would lose?”
A few of the officials had overcome the trauma, risen from their seats and staggered over to open windows. As Donald grinned and came to his conclusion – “No-one! The other seven million of us would all gain!” – they started to throw themselves out. I woke up dragging my quilt with me as I slid off my mattress and crashed to my bedroom floor.
(Gibbon’s comments can perhaps be compared with, or to, Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”)