Renovating the corridors of power

With America’s global economic and strategic hegemony on the wane, and many European countries hell-bent on absolute decline, Hong Kong is fortunate indeed to be sitting on the edge of an emerging superpower where municipal leaders’ wives poison foreign businessmen and blind activists scale tall walls to flee official persecution. But our future success is not guaranteed, and whether we like it or not, government will play a role in how this city adapts to a changing world. So it is hardly surprising that our next Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, is planning to restructure the government so his administration can, we hope, be less generally dimwitted and incompetent than its predecessor, and help us embrace the opportunities that lie ahead.

Behold the current ‘organogram’. Were it up to me, I would create three mega-bureaus:

  • Health, Education and Welfare, possibly to be named Ministry of Wealth Redistribution. Its aim would not be to mindlessly minimize social spending but to ensure that such expenditure goes to the right people and produces the right results. It would also be expected to eat interest groups like teachers and doctors for breakfast if necessary.
  • Quality of Life, comprising Housing, Transport, Planning, Environment, Lands and Development (ie, infrastructure). Its mission would be turn pretty much every existing policy on its head – reduce traffic, lower housing costs, clean the air, allow more public and private space, curb over-development and make Hong Kong into a nice place for humans to live in.
  • Wealth Creation (or something), covering the existing Commerce, Economic Development, Labour, Financial Services and Treasury functions. The fun bit here would be abolishing all those silly departments and agencies aimed at promoting trendy-sounding sectors (creative, high-tech, etc), subsidizing commercial loans, handing out innovation funds, and so on. I mean, what do these people do all day?

Apart from the usual blather about the 7 million-strong city’s supposed lack of political talent, most of the discussion about CY Leung’s approach has been about the style rather than the substance of his proposed structural changes. The director of his office, former senior official Fanny Law, is hectoring the Legislative Council about approving the plans so everything will be in place the moment the man takes office on July 1, and many people see this as hasty, not to say annoying. Not so much has been said about the reorganization itself, possibly because CY has not announced much detail about it, and maybe because it looks on the face of it to be a bit bewildering.

You wouldn’t have thought we needed two new bureaus on top of the current 12, and CY’s decision to establish a pair in the name of Technology and the ominous-sounding Culture surely bears this out. Pro-democratic legislator Lee Cheuk-yan is being childish in suggesting that Leung is expanding the number of senior-level offices in order to appoint, and reward, his friends. (CY doesn’t have 14 friends.) Assuming the new Kulture Minister is not tasked with developing socialist civilization with Big Lychee characteristics, this just looks like a reshuffling of existing functions.

The weird bit is the idea of appointing Deputy Chief and Financial Secretaries, each with a portfolio of responsibilities separate from their boss’s. Thus the Deputy CS will look after labour, education, culture and population policy, an assortment that seems to have been pulled from a hat. The FS and his Deputy will form a very rough version of the Quality of Life mega-bureau. China Daily tells us that the Deputy will also “focus on the nation’s 12th Five-Year Plan.” The poor wretch.

Maybe the most important part of the restructuring is the decision to bring together housing-related responsibilities that were previously separate. It’s hardly surprising the city has such a lopsided housing stock – with barely affordable private apartments now virtually smaller than dirt-cheap public ones – when policymaking has been divided among completely different agencies.

Speaking of which, the usually reasonably accurate Financial Times said a few days ago that CY was planning to “force businesses in Hong Kong to provide more subsidised housing.” A blunt correction quickly ensued. Strange: the rest of the article seemed spot-on.

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8 Responses to Renovating the corridors of power

  1. maugrim says:

    Widening the size of the civil service. Way to go C.Y. if you truly want to get things done in HK. /sarc.

  2. Jonathan Stanley says:

    “Its mission would be turn pretty much every existing policy on its head – reduce traffic, lower housing costs, clean the air, allow more public and private space, curb over-development and make Hong Kong into a nice place for humans to live in.”

    Could we be seeing Hemmers & D astride classic butcher’s bicycles trundling down a shiny new bicycle-commuter-superhighway along the Hong Kong Island waterfront of Greater-Leungchungyingistan in the not too distant future? Or would I just be dreaming and/or taken far too many hallucinogenic drugs?

  3. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    The ‘coming collapse of China’ bandwagon has been singing predictions that haven’t come true for over a decade now. Nonetheless, I’m thinking on jumping on it. Probably out of a contrarian attitude to the emerging China school.

    One more up cycle, then it’s over. China will be one of the shortest-lived economic resurgences seen in history.

    There are various reasons, but one which will be particularly interesting is intergenerational conflict. I don’t think we’ll see the little-publicised kids killing their parents that happened in Rwanda (inter-ethnic conflict is much easier for journalists to understand), where the disenfranchised kids were unhappy about the lack of farming land and ‘hording’ by their parents. But there will be intergenerational conflict of some sort as Confucian culture smashes into the inverse demographic pyramid generated by the one child policy. Headlines about demnetia addled grannies being ditched in hospitals (as in the West) will be the first heralds of this.

    That said, my sector tip for is Chinese healthcare (hospitals, not pharmaceuticals). Beijing changed the laws recently on conversion of not-for-profit hospitals to for-profits and we should see the first wave of healthcare IPOs starting in the next 12-18 months. The transfer of wealth from the high level of domestic savings into the healthcare sector will be one of the phenomena of the Chinese economy that we can profit from.

    On the other hand, choosing the right stock will be difficult. The PRC healthcare sector is full of crooks.

  4. PropertyDeveloper says:

    Empires do fall apart in different ways, but the thing about the Chinese one is the depth of feeling of belonging of most of the population, whether in linguistic, ethnic or cultural terms.

    Because of the age-old isolation from global politics, I too feel that China will find it hard to extend its soft power very far, but by the same token is unlikely to break up, the only outcome that might enable Hong Kong to be mistress of her own destiny.

    I also share Hemlock’s mistrust of change, not particularly because I’m a stick-in-the-mud, but because all the things we’re told, like “cultural industries” or “zero tolerance” or “flexibility” or “sustainable development” or “political responsibilty” or “accountable to Legco” or even “born in HK”, turn out to mean the opposite of what they say. And my impression is that CY is more devious than most.

  5. Real Tax Payer says:

    Let’s wait and see

    We are just at the stage in the new story where it has been written :
    “Once up a time in a far Eastern SAR there was a …”

    (BL : don’t you DARE say vampire or werewolf or I will have you virtually impaled in cyberspace)

  6. Wanchai Dreamer says:

    Problem with Hong Kong’s government structure is that with the obvious and unnecessary Defence and Foreign Affairs portfolios the rest of it mimics a national government hence its bloated size. It really needs a sensible 21st century city style government. The CE is after all a glorified mayor in all but name. The examples of non-joined up government here are legion. Reorganization through adding to the current mess will simply create more silos.

  7. Real Tax Payer says:

    Strange how such an important topic attracted so few comments compared to last friday’s epic on the kids & education issue

    Seems we are all pro-creating ( or otherwise) humans after all , and kids’ education ranks above the state of the nation

    I have no hang-ups on this , after all we all have homes to go to

    Just an observation

    I still wonder how CY – or indeed anyone – can get to grips with the real problems HK faces after 15 years of total mis -management.

    The first indication that he has the ability to do so will be to see if he rises above the “noise” level to see the broader issues and then grasps them at the root : not as knee-jerk but pro-actively.

    And then , after that, he grasps the real issues for the next 10 -15 years and puts the correct basic policies in place

    ( I mean – to take such a trivial example – why the f*#k are we talking about environmental impact assessments re the Zhuhai bridge and pink dolphins when we are killing 3,000 extra people per year with 15 – year old buses and people still live in shoe-boxes, or cages, and there is still no real govt pension fund ?)

  8. Peter says:

    “Problem with Hong Kong’s government structure is that with the obvious and unnecessary Defence and Foreign Affairs portfolios the rest of it mimics a national government hence its bloated size. It really needs a sensible 21st century city style government. The CE is after all a glorified mayor in all but name. The examples of non-joined up government here are legion. Reorganization through adding to the current mess will simply create more silos.”

    Look at Singapore. It operates like a national government (because it is one), yet it governs over a territory that is smaller than Hong Kong and with a lower population. Also the government is far less inept than the HK government.

    Like it or not, HK is a city state (that is a part of China) and therefore the government structure is appropriate.

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