A pointless waste of trees

The Hong Kong government’s public engagement on population policy begins, and, in the finest tradition of such exercises, might as well be halted and buried here and now. It could have been a useful opportunity to explore some deep questions, like what is this city actually for, and how can it best achieve it? Instead, it is about the usual blinkered bureaucrat-business obsessions – keep government reserves intact, keep labour cheap – based on the 19th Century colonial-era premise that the Big Lychee is a base for merchants, not a home for people.

The official announcement sets the tone by proposing five strategies to deal with the challenges whose existence, needless to say, is beyond question. These answers to all our problems can be summarized thus:

 a) Increase the wealth-creation zone’s stock of active production units by tackling under-utilization;

 b) Enhance the quality of the zone’s production units through installing upgraded and more appropriate software;

 c) Expand the zone’s capacity through a bigger and more focused system of importing better-quality production units from overseas;

 d) Pay lip-service to the idea of encouraging increased supply of locally manufactured production units;

 e) Find ways to keep older models of production unit in operation for longer, and to recycle them in such a way as to boost the zone’s output in due course.

The consultation document is also, interestingly, backward-looking in its attitude towards the Mainland. We are subjected to vast amounts of blather about cross-border integration, cooperation and partnership in such areas as arbitration services, creative industries, ‘Yuan business’ and all the other trendy-sounding inanities. But ‘population’ – people, families, homes, workplaces, transport, etc, etc – is an area where officials really should be thinking on a hinterland scale. Instead, they’re planning for Manhattan as if New Jersey and Connecticut weren’t there. The Mainland’s main role is as a source of life-saving, relatively youthful labour happy to wash dishes for HK$12,000 a month (they hope); its secondary one is as a place to leave the elderly when they become a burden, like the Eskimos used to as winter approached.

But wait! The consultation document gets almost mindlessly commerce-centric, to the extent that the aging population is not only a grave threat, but a juicy opportunity, thanks to the ‘silver hair market’, in which future generations of elderly people are consumers with high purchasing power. (I think the key phrase here is ‘future generations of’. There will be a time when today’s wrinkled cardboard-draggers will be a distant memory, and mandatory savings schemes will be in full force, ensuring that Hongkongers will be able to go on buying from cartelized supermarkets and monopoly utilities well into their 90s. Yum! Can’t wait.)

Mostly, though, it’s about labour (or, dare we suggest, the danger that rising wages will cut into landlords’ rental incomes). We are told there are current critical shortages of workers in construction and retail. These happen to be the two sectors most distorted, temporarily, by policy screw-ups: former Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s multi-billion splurge on pointless infrastructure projects, and the huge influx of Mainland shoppers. They are not grounds for long-term, megalomaniac micromanaging of demographics. (And let’s not even consider basics like where incoming workers will live, or how short-tempered local activists and populists will react.)

Not that the government’s proposals seem to be about serious strategy, anyway. A cap on population and an end to one-way permit immigration are both ruled out, so the Steering Committee on Population Policy are pretty much throwing all the cards in the air and admitting that they have no way of telling how they’ll land. Which sounds like ‘population policy’ the world over, in a nutshell.

I declare the weekend – like the floodgates – open.

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13 Responses to A pointless waste of trees

  1. maugrim says:

    So many contradictions in the Government’s musings. Yes, it’s true, utilities are paying $17,000 a month just for road diggers. However, Hemlock (or whomever is today’s author) is correct. The only reason wages are so high in such industries is that there are so many pointless construction projects going on that such markets are distorted. Perhaps for some, CSSA is more attractive? However, I can’t see how importing cheap labour (benefitting the usual suspects) will solve anything in the longer term. This is where the dissonance creeps in. HK as a Chinese city-society aspires for all of its young to go to University get a high paying job, etc. Is the Government seriously suggesting that HK’ers will have more kids (via a subsidy) so as to take advantage of comparatively well paid menial tasks? No! Just wait till the construction boom abates, wages will eventually subside. Like everyone else, they want their kids to aspire to other things. As to Carrie Lam seriously suggesting that the Government seek the return of ‘those orginally from HK’ as the tax rate is low. Apart from whifing of racism, who in their right mind would bother?

  2. sybill serpent says:

    Just raise the retirement age, already. Don’t ask – just do it.

  3. Raising the retirement age assumes that people’s main function in life is to produce goods and services, whether needed or not. This in turn assumes that those same people or others will consume what is produced. Some of us value our leisure time (and the country parks to enjoy it in) more than we crave the latest iPhone or other gadget and the funds to pay for it. Life is for living, not beavering away as a wage slave producing unnecessary crap so a few tycoons can get rich persuading other wage slaves they need to buy it. The real question governments should be asking is the purpose of life, not how many people are required to keep a destructive and wasteful economic system going for a few more years before the resulting global warming wipes us all out.

  4. PropertyDeveloper says:

    I don’t think I’d be very happy if the government did address philosophical and indeed metaphysical questions.

    About two-thirds of Chinese that study abroad don’t come back. And those that do find it uphill going. As we become steadily mainlandised, the same will apply increasingly to the Hongcouverites and so-called BBCs.

    Or, put another way, non-Chinese speakers of Chinese ethnicity feel more and more out of place here. The space for happy medium or negotiated compromise is diminishing daily.

    You’re either a patriot or not.

  5. Grog says:

    Like Hemmers mentions, the government has not used this opportunity to take a real look ahead at what a city in the post-millennium world should be, and how to get there. The bureaucrats cannot think outside of the “protect business” box, and as a result everything is skewed towards trying to sustain activities that should be in sharp decline. Infrastructure projects that Hemmers and Maugrim mention, for instance.

    One can only despair at the ineptitude of the administration. No one deserves this government.

  6. Stephen says:

    Look at the little quotation bubbles coming from impossibly happy “Production Units”. But shouldn’t they read;

    “We want to get married so we can rent a 400 sq.ft HA unit in Tin Shiu Wai”
    “We want to have more than one child but unfortunately live in Northern District where there is a snowballs chance in hell of getting a kindergarten place”
    “We would like to work in Hong Kong but realised the air pollution would wipe off ten years of our life”
    “I can’t fill the vacancies can I hire cheap brown people from abroad”
    “I want to return to work in Hong Kong however I know I’ll be called a banana and prejudiced against”

    I hope our grossly overpaid civil servants would prioritise the real issues and may look at my revisions to get an inkling what they are …

  7. reductio says:

    @ Stephen

    Great stuff. And talking of overpaid CSs, I wonder if they will raise the retirement age for them. No, thought not.

  8. maugrim says:

    Kudos to the above thoughts. I spat when I saw Eddie Ng holding one of the Government’s new PR brochures at yesterday’s launch. His Department can’t even predict what will happen when 100,000 anchor babies turn 3, let alone be trusted with any real planning. Our government couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery.

  9. gweiloeye says:


    You are the inaugural winner of the “Gweiloeye, Two Thumbs Up, Post of Week” award.

    This award will go to anyone that makes me laugh out loud in the office, and I get the strange stares from the locals. You succeeded mightly.

  10. Bigot says:

    Do not let the govt pull the wool over our eyes.

    Fanny Law made a Freudian slip yesterday. While pretending to sympathize with the HKTV jobless, she was in fact putting on a gloss on the current incompetent adminstration. In all audacity, she thinks that the wolf is “better” than its predecessor, i.e. more committees and consultations (or rather consultation tomes).

    The govt is never serious about tackling the population issue other than justifying its existence.

  11. Regislea says:

    “Raise the retirement age” is too simplistic a solution. I know a number of people still working virtually full-time in their eighties. Clue – they’ve always been “knowledge workers”. On the other hand, I know people in their mid/late fifties who are basically shot – clue – they were manual workers.

    It’s a very difficult issue -not helped by these knee-jerk reactions, nor the fomenting – as in the UK – of intergenerational bad feeling.

    My personal view is that we should be celebrating the fact that people are living longer and in better health. Mind you, at 68, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

  12. Joe Blow says:

    If there is one hard-working senior citizen, then it must be Ronald Arculli, who has just been appointed to Richard “Dick” Li’s insurance shop as, ehh, something. It is always something with Ronald.

  13. anon says:

    Always & everywhere, this same, insatiably-greedy-landlord problem — in HK & elsewhere. It is also an age-old problem, correct? The simple solution seems age-old also: just upload a few photos of “land-reform” circa 1949… Perhaps “history repeats itself” when things like landlords-cum-corrupted-cronies become forgetful?

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