The best part of 20 years ago, I was a minion sitting in a Hong Kong conglomerate’s boardroom with a picture of the Queen on the wall, as a senior corporate executive lamented that the government was unlikely to act decisively on a major policy issue that happened to affect the company’s business. The Chairman sneered and said, “Well, what do you expect from an administration that can’t even put a tunnel toll up?”
I have just heard a hint that Chief Executive CY Leung might announce in his policy address (starting 11.00am) that he will somehow attempt a long-overdue change to the cross-harbour tunnels’ toll structures. The current arrangement sucks thousands of vehicles through the congested and polluted downtown area because the cost of using that tunnel hasn’t changed since the 1990s; meanwhile, the two outer tunnels sit relatively unused. My reaction was that if CY pulls this off, he should get a Nobel Prize. The problem is legislators: those from functional constituencies support vested interests like transport and will oppose a fee hike, while the ever-deluded pro-democrats think higher tolls will hurt some imaginary little guy – and to hell with kids’ lungs.
Chances are that if the tunnel tolls are mentioned at all, it will only be as part of some far bigger planned pollution strategy. But it is interesting that we are suddenly reminded at this time of one relatively minor example of Hong Kong’s myriad impossible-to-implement-but-blindingly-obvious solutions to horrible problems. In theory, CY has a chance today to say ‘Change starts now’, and get people to believe it. But in practice, he is condemned to work within the half-democratic-half-authoritarian government structure bequeathed by history and almost designed to make sure nothing gets done.
Even with the advantage of a (almost) five-year term to play with, vaguely bold visions could go wrong. He has to improve housing availability, but you can see what’s going to happen here: just as we get to boost the supply of new units, US interest rates go up, Southern Europe defaults, the Chinese financial system explodes, and CY wakes up one morning and finds that he’s ‘caused’ a humungous property crash, and all the idiots who had bought HK$12,000-per-sq-ft apartments next to Tseung Kwan O landfill are up to their ears in negative equity and leaping off the roof with their kids. Last time, the blame attached itself to Tung Chee-hwa, but no such luck now.
As the press sit waiting with their pencils and pads, and Long Hair turns up with his cage of snakes or whatever props he will employ this year, we peruse a page in the Standard that often brings out a smile. Not because it has Nury Vittachi’s no-doubt side-splitting work. Not because it has the nauseating shoe-shining of the Fame and Fortune column. No – because of the daily Chinese character. During a smoggy season when we could use just a brief bit of early morning rain to rinse the air, isn’t it amusing to know that yu3 fen3, or ‘tiny drizzle’, literally means rain-powder?
Sesame Street today was brought to you by the verb shang4 fen3 – ‘to powder a dumpling’.