Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce CEO Shirley Yuen bemoans shortfalls of labour in food/beverage, retail and other sectors. The cause, she says, is the rise in tourism numbers from 16.6mn in 2002 to 48.6mn last year – in other words, the influx of Mainland shoppers. She echoes Federation of HK Industries boss Stanley Lau, who recently complained that “Nowadays you can pay HK$40 an hour and you still cannot find a dishwasher.”
Both, in these South China Morning Post items, take care to moan about shortages of higher-paid workers: Lau mentions deficits of doctors and nurses, and Yuen (who calls all scarce workers ‘skilled’) of ‘professionals and associate professionals’, which means doctors and nurses, I bet. The truth is that, like our friend Jack ‘100mn-tourists-a-year’ So, they want to cram yet more and more visitors into the Big Lychee’s teeming streets.
In theory, most HKGCC and FHKI members should have little interest in seeing Hong Kong’s economy become increasingly distorted by the crush of Mainland shoppers; wealth-creating businesses, their clients and their employees all suffer from the physical overload and rising rents. In practice, both seem to bow to what Mao referred to as “Our enemies … the warlords, the bureaucrats, the comprador class, the big landlord class and the reactionary section of the intelligentsia attached to them…” Well, give or take warlords, at least.
Perhaps we can put it down to the men in suits/self-identity/Bronze Bauhinia Star/shoe-shining/lemming effect: along with all your peers, you don’t argue against the property cartel’s interests if you crave establishment acceptance and appointment to a government advisory board. Another possible reason organizations like the HKGCC and FHKI are being co-opted by the property-retail nexus is that government land (and now tourism) policies have been almost compelling Hong Kong businesses with spare capital to get into real estate. The returns are so much higher than from other possible investments that you’d be stupid not to do it; family firms that stuck to non-property core activities in the last decade are kicking themselves.
If you think you’ve seen the HKGCC and FHKI mentioned in the same breath recently, it could be here: both joined in the coordinated scaremongering by business groups about Occupy Central last May. Could it be that, having obediently signed up to that campaign, they now feel entitled in return to lobby for extra capacity for tourists (and to hell with the residents)?
The mindlessness of Shirley Yuen’s arguments reflects the selfishness and greed of the tourism lobby (which may be desperate to pack the Mainlanders in over the next few years before Beijing pulls the plug on the party by cutting taxes on luxury goods). She claims that Hong Kong will ‘underperform’ or be ‘held back’ if it does not expand tourism capacity even further. The idea that we have a finite capacity, that we might have surpassed it, and that rising tourism spending does nothing for 99% of the population except increase crowding and rents doesn’t register. Nor, obviously, does the concept that an economy does not exist to be grown as an end in itself, regardless of any side-effects, but is a means to prosperity and well-being. For everyone.
It also reflects the mindset of our policymakers. Shirley Yuen is a former civil servant who joined the HKGCC when ex-CE Donald Tsang’s bureaucrat-property-cartel power-base was at its hubristic peak – with all its self-serving, economically illiterate obsessions about hubs and infrastructure projects.
With the property/retail lobby intent on pouring its lucrative quart after quart into our communal pint pot, we can only hope that a bigger, possibly final, backlash against the parasitical tourism industry draws nearer. A neat idea appears in the SCMP’s letters page (‘High luxury goods tax will lower rents’). Green Sense is one of the few NGOs that dare to question the sacred status of the hotel/retail trades (apparently, the phrase to use when pointing out that the city is bursting at the seams is ‘carrying capacity’). The fact that Shirley Yuen and Stanley Lau plead so desperately to import cheap retail staff suggests that officials have already expressed doubts. There must come a point where a few respectable, suit-wearing, non-noodle-shop businesses – the sort government might listen to – will beg to differ with the orchestrated pleading to stuff the streets with infinite shoppers. Failing all of which, as we have seen from incidents like the Great Dolce and Gabbana Uprising of 2012, the noodle-eating-on-trains YouTube clip and anti-locust gatherings at Sheung Shui, there’s always the next, bigger, and better, outburst when nerves snap.