Then-Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s policy initiatives in the mid-late 2000s were so gut-wrenchingly awful they are best forgotten. Think Zhuhai bridge, Lok Ma Chau Loop, education hub, high-speed rail tunnel to Shenzhen, Islamic bonds hub, arbitration hub, wine hub, cooperation, partnership and a host of other multi-billion dollar white elephants, cross-boundary blather and desperately naïve straw-clutching. Among Sir Bow-Tie’s miasma of absurdities was the idea of a commodities trading hub, but the existing Hong Kong Stock Exchange saw it as a money-loser (as if to prove the point, they later blew the most stupendous amount imaginable to buy the London Metals Exchange).
So along came the Hong Kong Mercantile Exchange, owned by all-purpose establishment/business figure Barry Cheung, two state-owned Chinese mega-companies and Russia’s Putin-backed Rusal minerals giant. It was supposed to be a trading platform for fuel-oil futures but ended up doing precious metals. For a while it was the focus of avid bureaucrat-driven hype, with its luminaries smugly swanning around as great visionaries while every shoe-shiner in town had orgasms at the thought of the Big Lychee becoming the Solar System’s number-one Yuan-denominated gold derivatives centre-hub Yeah Baby mega-complex.
And now it turns its trading licence in ‘to re-align its strategy with the new industry environment since its trading revenues have not been sufficient to support operating expenses’ – which I think means ‘gone bust’ in plain English. Dreams of well-connected, crony-friendly, luxury-offices-at-Cyberport, space-age, high-tech, middle-aged whizz kid intermediaries making zillions of easy-easy-money in a frenzy of Beijing-linked, Hong Kong-bureaucrat-endorsed rent-seeking – all evaporated in the face of some reality or other: competition, hubris, incompetence (tick more than one if necessary).
Everyone wants to know the dirt about Barry Cheung’s personal, or at least, financial details. As Chairman of the Urban Renewal Authority, he has been overseeing a bureaucracy with a genuine licence to print money, by evicting slum dwellers and teaming up with the big property tycoons to develop luxury apartments for corrupt Mainland officials to buy and leave empty. Then, maybe out of idealism, possibly because of a gift for spotting shifting winds a mile off, or perhaps as a sheer lunatic gamble, Barry sided with Leung Chun-ying in advance of the 2012 Chief Executive quasi-election. So there is no shortage of people ready to pontificate about how dreadful it would be if, as a member of the Executive Council, he was in a state of financial embarrassment.
But the real story is about the futility and bankruptcy of Hong Kong’s policymaking when it comes to things like broadening the city’s economic base – attempting to untangle extreme distortions without upsetting any of the interests that benefit from the distortions. And trying way too hard.