Paul Chan and Cheah Cheng Hye strike balances

Drowsily listening to the news on the radio this morning, I’m sure I heard Hong Kong Development Secretary Paul Chan quoted as repeating the idiotic notion that ‘we must strike a balance between the benefits and drawbacks’ of the vast influx of Mainland shoppers.

Let’s apply this way of thinking to other areas. We must strike a balance between the benefits and drawbacks of:

  • letting productive people who are pressed for time dump household garbage, rotting leftover food and construction waste anywhere in the street or countryside
  • allowing the otherwise unskilled and unemployable to make a better living by trafficking in narcotics, firearms, baby boys and kidnapped women

This absurdity (‘half good + half bad = perfect’) is already all around us. Every day, we are striking a balance between the benefits and drawbacks of:

  • letting market vendors sell live poultry in urban markets despite the risk of deadly viral infections
  • allowing vehicles to park illegally downtown despite the shortage of space on sidewalks and the terrible air pollution

But what can we expect in a place where we manage to strike a balance between the benefits and drawbacks of:

The South China Morning Post carries a big op-ed piece by Cheah Cheng Hye, chairman of fund manager Value Partners. Rather than spout inanities about how a measure of good stuff plus a measure of crap stuff is ideal, he tries to reconcile the ‘tourism is essential and wonderful’ fiction with the ‘but it makes our lives shit’ reality.

He starts off by declaring that the Hong Kong economy ‘relies heavily’ on tourism. No-one has done a proper cost-benefit analysis on it, but we know that we got by fine without an influx of Mainland shoppers (aka ‘tourism’) for many years. To most people it looks more as if the tourism industry is feeding off Hong Kong than the other way round. This is like saying that the body of a cancer victim ‘relies heavily’ on the huge tumor within it.

However, star value-investor Cheah didn’t come to be known as the Warren Buffett of Penang by ignoring details and facts. As he develops his argument, he accepts basic truths, like the fact that you can’t physically cram so many people into such a small space. This leads him to recognize inescapable consequences, even including serious social and political conflict, if we carry on trying to cram them all in. And that in turn leads him to conclude that this thing on which we ‘rely heavily’ must in fact be reduced in size, and partially moved offshore – though still handled as if there were something mysteriously precious about it.

Like Paul Chan’s dimwitted contradiction in terms, Cheah’s tiptoeing among facts and fictions perhaps confirms that discussion of ‘tourism’ is about striking a balance between:

  • the interests of big landlords – the only people in the city whose well-being matters
  • the Chinese leadership’s intention to increasingly smother and absorb Hong Kong, and
  • the haplessness and incompetence of our local officials.
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