CY’s first big last chance?

When Hong Kong’s new government under Chief Executive CY Leung introduced special stamp duty measures to keep hot Mainland money out of the property market, the Real Estate Developers Association wailed that the move would “damage our reputation as one of the freest economies in the world.” It is hard to believe that the property cartel had suddenly acquired a deep concern for the city’s image. Rather, a new refuge for scoundrels opened for business.

Fears for the Big Lychee’s international standing are not new. But with a new, at least semi-reformist, administration in place, vested interests and opponents are looking for weapons, and warnings of reputational damage will do nicely.

It is a sort of moral blackmail, and it seems to be cropping up on an almost daily basis. Today’s is from whatever parasites want to keep thousands of families in subhuman housing conditions in order to build a private (ie, for rich overseas folk) university. Like the wretched sports stadium in Kai Tak – which CY has shamefully acceded to – this is a vanity/giveaway project left over from the Donald Tsang era. The proposed site could accommodate some 10,000 public housing units. Changing the plan now would, of course, ruin Hong Kong’s “image as a centre of excellence for education,” whatever that is.

In most cases, the supposed reputation at risk is a figment of local imaginations. But even if our ‘reputation as a blah-blah’ is real – hard-earned, even – does it outweigh the local community’s needs? Policymakers should be putting the onus on their opponents to prove it. Instead, in true inoffensive, harmonious fashion, they will no doubt be cowed into submission. Business constituencies, sectoral lobbies, opportunistic politicians and bureaucratic interests will all probably help in the scaremongering. (Let’s leave aside how a decades-old rigged system of land hoarding and collusion with a property cartel can produce a civic reputation for anything positive.)

As every newspaper editorial reminds us, a policy address is just a couple of weeks away, and CY has his golden opportunity to seize the initiative with high-profile, populist, and necessarily short-term, moves. In today’s China Daily, academic Victor Fung Keung discusses ways to find at least interim shelter for dwellers of subdivided apartments. He favours the conversion of old factory buildings. This is not as easy as it sounds because most such blocks are not sitting empty but are already used for various purposes – not least, er, subdivided apartments. As he points out, bureaucrats so far are dragging their feet. There are fun alternatives, for those who can get their minds round them. Shipping containers anyone? Seriously. Short/medium term housing like this can go almost anywhere, from the Central reclamation to Kai Tak.

Either way, temporary relief for micro-slum dwellers will attract a thousand possible objections. Current planning/zoning/etc regulations bend over backwards to stop people from having a home. Apartments must have windows on three sides (obviously not possible in an old factory). Residential neighbourhoods must have specific levels of school, hospital, market and transport facilities (obviously not do-able for vacant waterfront reclamations).

The most radical fix to housing – and an environmentally friendly one – is to open up the 200,000 or whatever empty apartments we have in this city. Obviously, there are some administrative and other problems here, but the real anguish would be over principle. In this case, private property rights. If the world’s rice harvest failed, and speculators had bought up all Hong Kong’s grain inventory and stashed it away to wait for prices to rise, would the government listen to voices saying “don’t damage Hong Kong’s reputation for free markets,” or would they force the supply onto the market?

CY’s short-term answer to getting people out of the city’s worst housing will probably fall short of fast-tracked factory conversions, let alone wackier and more radical options. The key questions are: how far short, and how much the blame will lie with spurious objections from vested interests and blind opposition? His main chance to win over the population (he has a 49% approval rating to lose) could actually rest on it.


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9 Responses to CY’s first big last chance?

  1. Real Time Lois Beluga says:

    The present housing crisis is produced by the property agents, the truest representatives of the spirit of most Hong Kong people: hoarding, speculating, money-for-nothing-loving misers. Stop condemning them. They ARE the people.

    Incidentally, I can finally solve the mystery of the queue for “pantyhose tea” mentioned in your organ posting yesterday. You were in fact witnessing the filming of a scene from “Taste Of Nylon III” (2013) by the renowned Japanese film maker Rio Sekuhara, featuring a cast of volunteer office ladies and perv salarymen.

    The present political brouhaha in Hong Kong reminds me of my days as a Foreign Expert on a college campus in deepest backward China: the constant in-fighting, the factions, the bickering, the pettiness and pointlessness. Peking receives thousands of reports of such “unrest” and “dissatisfaction” from provincial party chiefs all day every day. They clap their hands in glee.

    The Colonial regime used to call this tactic Divide And Rule.

    The Chinese Communist Party calls it Good Housekeeping.

  2. zipcar says:

    Big Lychee persists in making logical, intelligent arguments to his audience of about a dozen mostly grumpy long-term expats, none of whom have the power to do sweet fuck-all.

    Meanwhile, those with power either flail about incompetently (government) or continue to suck every dollar they can from the increasingly-polluted carcass of what was once a great city, but is increasingly a mainland theme park and money-laundering center (business sector).

  3. Failed Alchemist says:

    Everything said today is a matter of “been there, done that”. Under the Duck, we gave freebies to universities & colleges like the Savannah College of Art & Design, Harrows etc. The years the Duck has been in office including his role as CS have been the most consistent bane for HKer’s. We were going for the Asian games under Tsang Tak-sing. The Kai Tak project would have been child’s play compared to the cost of the games and adjacent cruise terminal. From the audits of the games in GZ and the other university games SZ, the bleeding was so severe – as the Cantonese say, “even my mother can’t recognise me”

    Instead of investing good money in coaches and sponsering athletes, then consider the hardware, HK is consistently placing the cart first (maybe to somebody’s benifit or its an exercise to boost the ego).

    Unfortunately, shrewd captalist have beaten us to the use of shipping containers. These homes away from home are stuck is many nook & crannies in the NT esp. Yuen Long & Tuen Mun. The unfortunate part its no where close to Keetwonen.

    Yes, surely the devil is in the details, so why waste time reading the footnotes… que sera sera… they want life to go on as it is….. just keep dancing the the devil’s tune.

  4. Stephen says:

    Yesterday a flat measuring 1415 sq.ft gross sold for USD2.75M. Where – Mid Levels, The Peak, Repulse Bay ? No it was “The Wings” in Tseung Kwan O, the former landfill site in one of our ghastly New Town (podiums, no street life etc). Are things getting out of whack?

    Much as I dislike ‘The Property Cartel’ in this town let’s be clear who the Chairman of the Board is – Step forward HKSARG. So what’s CY to do ? Step down from the board and make good his promise of HK Land for HK people (residents only can buy, no companies etc) in all that is left of Kai Tak ? But then the Developers won’t hit the Governments huge reserve price to trigger an auction or will the reserve price be drastically reduced?

    More likely a fudge to build more public housing (how pleasing to the eye and desirable) but at least you don’t need the cartel just their construction company subsidiaries. Maybe he’ll allow his mate Baz Cheung from the URA to build another K11. I would like to think he will come up with something different but I’m afraid things are just too out of whack.

  5. Property Developer says:

    Both Victor and Hemlock are, I suspect, putting up straw men, with Stephen’s attempt to suggest solutions probably making the most sense. CY can’t be seen to have engineered what is so sorely needed, a return of property prices to a reaonable level, so his room for manoeuvre is limited.

    Certainly he should build even more public housing, even in the knowledge that many in it leave it empty and/or are well over the means-tested limit. The civil service can only just keep a lid on the various property-related problems. so improvising makeshift accommodation — and managing it and its occupants for ever after — would just be a recipe for disaster.

    I suspect village houses have the lowest occupancy ratio; and gaining forcible access would be child’s play. Perhaps CY should start by putting the cage men in the fifth floors, underground caverns and portacabins?

  6. Chris Maden says:

    I took a stroll around the desolate wastelands of Western Kowloon the other day. A testamony to the government’s utter inability to make a decision, most this vast area (reclaimed for no purpose other than to build on) has now been mostly vacant for the 15 years since the airport opened, and has quite a few areas in which trees have developed to maturity.

    The problem is not CY. The problem is political: every vested interest in this town has a veto over government policy. Taxi drivers don’t want Octopus: vetoed by taxi drivers; property developers don’t want the government to release more land: vetoed by property developers. The result is stasis – an inabililty to act.

    In 1997 we were promised 50 years of no change. Beware of what one asks for; one may get it…

  7. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    What’s the rationale for taxi drivers not wanting octopus? Loss of small change on rounding up/tips? I have (genuine) sympathy for them on this point.

  8. The Regulator says:

    The Wings psf price means that the developer has underwritten Century Gateway Phase II, its other development in Tsuen Mun. It also, Hong Kong style, has made Phase I buyers happy with a 50% gain in less than 6 months.

  9. While the government probably dreams of (losing money on) the Asian Games, the new Kai Tak Stadium may just serve one useful purpose: since the government refuses to allow the grossly underutilised Hong Kong Stadium to be used for concerts, we may finally get a venue large enough to attract the world’s top stars – or at least until the adjacent residential areas are occupied and the neighbours start complaining about the noise….

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