It can’t be worse than the last seven, can it?

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’.

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11 Responses to It can’t be worse than the last seven, can it?

  1. Bela Mnemonic says:

    THOSE POLICY ADDRESS CUE CARDS IN FULL

    C all
    Y our

    L azy
    E xecutive
    U nderlings
    N oxious
    G its

    And then:

    C astrate
    Y our

    L iberals
    E ven
    U ndoing
    N egotiated
    G iveaways

    But don’t forget to:

    C ram
    Y our

    L egislation with
    E nough
    U nearned
    N oteworthy
    G rants

    (That’s enough Policy Address acrostics. Ed.)

  2. Sir Crispin says:

    “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”

    If I might make a cynically detached observation: from a Darwinian perspective, this could be a good thing for HK

  3. Ah, so the only solution for the tunnels is the prices going up for something that was paid for a long time ago. Definitely can’t have the pan-dems solution of resumption of the East and West tunnels, since CY’s govt is all about protecting the tycoons, the Heung Yee Kuk and his Party friends.

    Solution to over-priced housing? Let the tycoons build more properties for more profit on land that will make Heung Yee Kuk richer. Could never work with the mainland to stem the flow of hot money out of the PRC and meanderingly back in to HK assets, since the value of Hong Kong to CY’s friends is as a laundry and a stable storage of wealth, so no way that CY will allow price per square foot to drop back to even the pre-bubble states.

  4. Stephen says:

    @Tom,

    The CHT is bought and paid for under a 30 BOT (Build Operate Transfer). The EHT and WHT (majority owned by CITIC I think) are not. Obvious solution – buy them (HK sits on a cash mountain) and standardize the tolls (not necessarily go up). Last time this solution was mentioned (was it the Pan Dems?) it was dropped for being an affront to Hong Kong free market principles or some such bollox.

    As for Housing I am looking for him to make good on ‘Hong Kong land for Hong Kong people’ and to auction off private lots with that restrictive covenant. Land price will drop and should housing built on them.

    He’s maybe bosom buddies with the CCP but not the tycoons (as Donald seemed to be) and watch them squeal if he starts to implement common sense policies that HK has needed for years.

  5. Maugrim says:

    To a casual observer, today’s piece is an interesting insight into HK in general, ie, failed Goverment over a long period of time, a lack of political will and selfish interests both politically and economically. Sad really.

  6. Joe Blow says:

    Isn’t it true that when Quantitative Easing comes to an end -which is inevitable- HK’s stratospheric house prices will collapse like a souffle under their own lack of weight ?

  7. @joe_blow that would be true if the real driver of HK property prices was Quantitative Easing/low interest rates and not PRC M2 growth. I dare Jake VdK or any of the other gas bags that bleat about low interest rates and QE driving HK property prices to actually plot monthly amounts of mortgage loans vs. interest rates or QE timing or PRC M2 growth. The HKMA doesn’t make it easy to gather the data, but if you do, you’ll see the issue isn’t interest rates or QE. And given CY’s commitment to adding new homes at rate of HK economic growth, he wants new property value to increase at rate new cash floods in to HK to keep prices from bubbling and provide PRC officials with stable storage of laundered wealth.

    And @Stephen it’s much less an affront to HK’s free market principles to raise the price on government-run assets, so as to ensure proper ROI for CY’s tunnel-owning tycoon buddies (and yes I do include CITIC as a tycoon, just a mainland one that reports to the State Council)

  8. Malteser says:

    Isn’t someone at the Standard being satirical…defining tiny drizzle next to Nury’s latest Dumb Space Filler?

  9. Real Tax Payer says:

    “Change starts now”

    Let’s see

    My case rests

    Go for it CY !

  10. Walter De Havilland says:

    Nice to see that Emily responded with her usual rant. No change there then!

  11. Real Tax Payer says:

    I too love the word “humongous”

    I have not the foggiest idea what it means but it does sound a very nice word to the ears

    As for the Chinese character bit of the Standard – that’s the second point I zero in after the headlines ( or rather the back of page one advert – lines)

    All the rest is “drizzle”

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