After dragging out the inevitable, the Hong Kong government finally abandons its plan to allow company directors to conceal their ID card numbers – and thus, in many potential cases, their true identities.
It takes a lot to get Hong Kong government officials to admit that they have made a stupid mistake. And when, after exploring all other avenues, they climb down, it is almost too painful to watch as they laboriously and self-consciously attempt to appear not to be climbing down – even though we know, and they know we know – that they are. In the Hong Kong context, the citing of a ‘lack of consensus’ is the last refuge of a policy-making scoundrel.
You almost feel a twinge of sympathy. Well, OK, you don’t. In a manlier culture of governance, someone would say “Yes, I screwed up,” and resign. Here, the humiliated error-makers will be eating bitterness for years to come.
Among the guilty are the Privacy Commission, which, perhaps in a fit of empire-building, seems to have encouraged the notion that ID card numbers are private – the exact opposite of their true purpose of specifying which Chan Kwok-hung, John Smith or Zeng/Tsang Xiaofeng/Siu-fong someone is. We can also point the finger at Financial Services and Treasury Bureau officials, and ask whether at some stage their determination to push the measure through was influenced by Beijing, where leaders have been humiliated by revelations about their families’ accumulation of vast, sometimes Hong Kong-registered, wealth. We can also blame legislators; those representing business interests had their own predictably murky motives to support the proposal, but those supposedly representing the people too easily swallowed the ‘privacy’ argument.
It wasn’t widespread public opposition that forced the government to backtrack, but objections from experts, many in the financial services sector, unaccustomed to criticizing official policy. The attention of the international media did the rest.
The subject of the next government climbdown is likely to be altogether more populist, and that’s the proposal to issue a licence for a new 3G mobile operator. Cynics assume that Mainland state telecoms giant China Mobile is behind this – using its influence in Beijing to bully Hong Kong officials into letting it directly own a chunk of limited local spectrum.
Critics (including vested interests) claim this would slow mobile Internet speeds by 30%; government officials themselves admit that the figure would be 18%, which is a noticeable deterioration in service quality, and a flabbergasting thing to admit. Both sides also agree that the telecoms sector already has sufficient competition. In short, the government, or at least civil servant Susie Ho, is virtually arguing against its own proposal.
This suggests that China Mobile (assuming it is behind an attempted high-tech land-grab) will be repelled, and at least some local officials are in fact working to that end. As in the Mainland oil industry, there are three big telecoms operators (Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom) with varying degrees of influence among different factions, ministries, maybe the PLA, maybe princelings and so on. Hong Kong authorities are not necessarily under any pressure to kowtow to this particular company, state-owned or not. One of our officials will just have to say, “Sorry China Mobile, we tried our hardest to help you out, but as you can see our political and regulatory structures just won’t allow us to hand you a slice of this pie.”
I mean, can you seriously imagine the Hong Kong government genuinely trying to increase competition in part of our domestic economy?
Conspiracy theorists looking for similar cases where officials somewhere in the bureaucracy have sabotaged policy will find plenty of possible examples. Among the biggest would be Article 23 and National Education, both of which would have had far better chances of implementation had they not been so mysteriously badly handled (that is mis-handled in an abnormal – rather than the usual – way).
Anyone despairing of the quality of governance and more in Hong Kong can always seek relief through a weekend in Macau, perhaps to inspect: the latest design in ladies’ wear; and rumours that Mainlander tourists are avidly taking photographs of a bust of casino mogul Stanley Ho (the shall-we-say flattering likeness is placed next to a far less appealing work he ‘rescued’ for the nation from evil foreign thieves)…
…work on the city’s new super-max prison, being built not far from the (apparently extremely grotty) current facility on Coloane Island, on a hilltop, with multiple watchtowers in rather close proximity to the airport, but I’m sure they know what they’re doing…