One quick way of reducing Hong Kong’s air pollution would be to raise cross-harbour tunnel tolls. The main (Causeway Bay-Hung Hom) tunnel’s toll has been HK$20/HK$10 for cars/taxis for what seems like decades. Increase that charge, say, fivefold and cut the other tunnels’ fees by a few bucks, and you would almost certainly migrate a lot of commuters onto buses (currently underutilized) and trains, and spread the rest out onto the less popular routes, thus reducing congestion significantly. It won’t happen because assorted vocal scumbags who want to leech off the rest of the population one way or another would wet themselves about the ‘unfairness’ of it all and the supposed impact on their sorry livelihoods.
By contrast, the charges for non-residents at public hospitals went up relatively recently – a mere nine years ago. As for residents, these are flat-rate per-day fees in basic categories like out-patient, in-patient and intensive care; you do not get an itemized bill for each test, procedure or drug. The decision to raise the charges for what are mainly in practice visitors and not for locals seems a bit illogical – if costs rise, they rise for all users. Since raising the rock-bottom hospital bills for entitlement-minded residents would be near-impossible, the obvious thing to do would be to just leave this whole area alone.
For some reason, officials want to go ahead and push up non-residents’ charges. If the only people affected were tourists, it would be no big deal. But Mainland spouses of Hong Kong residents count as non-res. Cue a great wailing and gnashing of teeth, as affected Hongkongers complain that it’s ‘unfair’ and Chief Executive CY Leung’s enemies in the Legislative Council pounce with glee on another policy to fight to the death over.
On the face of it, Mainland spouses are indeed non-residents, so should be treated as such, and the Court of Final Appeal endorsed the principle earlier this year (concerning maternity fees). However, the disgruntled have a point. If a Hongkonger marries someone from Timbuktu, Greenland or Tahiti, the spouse gets to live here instantly with an ID card, thus cheap local hospital bills. Marry a Mainlander, and your spouse joins a lengthy waiting list to come here. It is hard to see why the government is choosing this particular fight. Maybe the idea is just to burden Legco’s oppose-everything brigade with yet more causes.
Far better to clamp down on the great tourism menace. I’m not sure what free meds columnist Lau Nai-keung is getting from Queen Mary’s these days, but his lapses into lucidity seem to be getting more frequent – to the extent that we’re in danger of missing the rabid mouth-frothing venom and hate of past times. In an article on thinking out of the box, he questions the value of the tourism industry and asks why no-one proposes slapping a hefty tax on all the designer-label junk visitors buy, so at least we get some revenue out of it (and hopefully drive some of the crowds away).
Hong Kong has long been in a trance about tourism. Years of official boasting about rising visitor numbers have left people unable to imagine that the industry might cost most of us more than it’s worth.
The equation for finding out would start with what visitors spend, then subtracting how much of it promptly leaves the city’s economy (most of it, given that we don’t manufacture the junk). You would also include luxury retailers’ higher rents, at least some of which will also end up overseas as part of big landlords’ offshore investment portfolios. And you would add luxury retail outlet staff’s incomes, minus what they were earning before the tourism boom drove their locally-oriented employers out of business.
Then we get to the fun part: the externalities. This includes the costs arising from the extra pollution caused by tour buses, like the medical treatment of additional cases of pulmonary diseases. It includes the cost of cleaning up the wee-wee and other items deposited in public areas by tourists. It includes the cost of extra time it takes locals to buy things they need after their local shops close down, or the higher prices for infant formula in their neighbourhood. And of course it includes the rising rents that surviving locally-oriented retailers pass on to us. Then there is the mental stress, as I, and a million others, get increasingly irritated at having to drag Japanese, European and the inevitable Mainlanders out of the way every time I go to my local 7-Eleven for a few cans of drink. (I can say “Who said you can come to this neighbourhood?” in Korean, Italian and Polish.)
Net outcome, probably: a few landlords and luxury brands are raking in billions that won’t trickle down, some retail workers might have seen a pay rise, while the other 98% of us are net financial losers – subsidizing the landlords and designer labels. It’s a parasite industry, and we should start spraying some DDT. This is a battle nearly all parts of the non-tycoon part of the population could agree on. But it’s ‘a pillar industry’, and ‘less tourists = more wealth’ is too counterintuitive for most people to bear.
At least we could put cross-harbour tunnel tolls up for non-residents.