The South China Morning Post continues to test the reader’s gag-reflex with its embarrassing ‘Moving Forward’ series. In which, we recall, a ‘silent majority’ wax visionary about Hong Kong after the Occupy-Umbrella movement. The whole exercise seems designed to push a fantasy. This ‘silent majority’ is somehow nearly all rich, middle-aged and pro-establishment. And the premise of the project is that the Occupy-Umbrella phenomenon is oh-so over and conveniently behind us.
(Fans of ‘Moving Forward’ will note that this is the second wave of interviews, following a torrent of them a few months back. There is a third to come. And, apparently, a fourth! This is shoe-shining on steroids. Will they finish it before Umbrella Revolution II begins?)
Last week’s ‘silent majority’ included Pansy Ho, heiress to the old multi-billion Macau casino monopoly and therefore worthy of adulation befitting a Princess Diana/Einstein hybrid (it was just an extended puff-piece for tourism). Today it’s the turn of Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, head of the Jockey Club. Again, there’s plenty of toadying about the success of his organization as if it isn’t a money-printing monopoly, and the usual blather about how young people must ‘grasp opportunities’.
But, as is so often the case in a city where a million irritating problems come down to just a few basic structural flaws, a glimmer of insight manages to escape this black hole. Herr E-B states that the housing crisis is the result of the land premium that developers have to pay the government. He is oblique about this (hinting at ‘compensating people for their significant initial loss’), and the SCMP puts these remarks in a different box and isn’t going to probe. It would be easy to turn the page and forget about it. Don’t.
The land premium is a hidden, huge, up-front tax on private-sector housing. By keeping smaller developers out, it enables a property cartel to flourish. And by raising revenue in big uneven clumps, it gives bureaucrats a theoretical excuse to blow public funds on pointless infrastructure projects. But the really crazy thing is this: the more expensive housing becomes (because of supply shortages, or low interest rates), the higher the tax gets. Higher housing prices lead to higher land premiums, which means… even higher housing prices – and therefore a faster and higher, even exponential, pace at which housing becomes more unaffordable. Little wonder that most of the middle class are now priced out. The SCMP isn’t alone in sweeping this under the carpet: have you ever heard the pro-democrats make a fuss about this obscenity?
Out of the mouths of babes and innocents… Another spark of truth appears through the murky darkness in comments from Environment Under-secretary Christine Loh. She says that roadside pollution comes from traffic congestion, which is caused by unrestricted growth in private cars. This is common knowledge. She then says that the Transport Bureau is in charge here, and so inter-departmental cooperation is required. The implication is that such cooperation is not in fact happening (which we can confirm by standing on any street). Christine’s comments are bureaucrat-speak for ‘the Transport Bureau is a malevolence’, which again we all know.
And so, again, we could just turn the page. But again, don’t.
Why is the Transport Bureau keen to allow more and more cars onto our crowded streets? Part of it is pure selfishness. These officials all drive around in those ugly seven-seater things and therefore consider the 90% of the population on buses and sidewalks as a nuisance and obstruction. But the big picture is about money.
The transport and planning bureaucracy wants more traffic because it wants to build more roads. Why would it want to do that? Partly because it means more work and bigger budgets and empires for the officials. But mostly, we can be fairly sure, because of the pervasive influence of private interests, namely the engineering and construction industry. At best, we are talking about civil servants going to work for the private sector after retirement. At worst, we are, or could be, talking kickbacks. The outcome is a system that diverts public wealth (raised from those land premiums) into the pockets of construction interests, often owned by the same property tycoons who run the housing cartel.
As a government minister, Christine Loh can’t say any of this. The SCMP aren’t going to go there, either. But then again, the pro-democrats are also silent on it.
Rather than see political reform as an issue of rigged housing prices, corrupt transport and infrastructure priorities and overall governance, the pro-dems have always been fixated on the structure, theory and symbolism of democracy. Their latest high-minded arguments for vetoing Beijing’s political reforms are the most pointed and efficient yet. So confident are they in the popular accessibility of their abstract reasoning, they are planning to bombard public housing estates with these leaflets. The pro-Beijing camp’s tactic, by contrast, is to back fake democracy with fake signatures.