A bit of reading between the lines

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 SCMP-JockeyClubinitial 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.

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9 Responses to A bit of reading between the lines

  1. Big Al says:

    I stand corrected. I always though that street-level pollution came from all motorised vehicles. Christine now tells me it comes only from private cars (according to the SCMP quote, albeit likely taken out of context). Thank goodness for that, otherwise we’d also have pollution from an excessive number of buses, lorries, motorbikes, etc. Oh!

  2. Probably says:

    Spot on. Hits the nail right on the head with regards to the Land Premium and road congestion / pollution as the primary sources of what ails HK’. (What a genius CL must be to equate more cars with more gaseous emissions and longer journey times – I could never have thought of that myself!).

    As for existing anti-pollution legislation I was considering turning myself in to the police for running an idling engine for nearly half an hour this morning – but then I realised I was just in the queue for the Central Tunnel.

    If someone can resolve these issues of the Land Premium and road congestion who needs democracy, faux or real?

  3. Cassowary says:

    The transport department is remarkably unimaginative even by the standards of a venal bureaucracy. So the construction industry wants a giant money-sucking megaproject rife for opportunities for embezzling, recursive contracts, skimping on construction quality, and the old Running Out of Money and Asking Legco For More, Or Else You’ll Have a Big Hole In The Ground Forever Trick.

    Propose a great big tunnel under the city like Boston’s Big Dig and return the ground level to pedestrians.

    Demolish all the highways along the waterfront, rebuild them under the sea, and make a waterfront park.

    Build a giant pedestrian deck over the entrance of the Cross Harbour Tunnel and vent the fumes away from Hung Hom.

    There must be dozens of expensive megaprojects with dollar signs falling out of them that would leave the city better off in the end, but all they can think of doing is bulldozing another historical building for yet another highway. It’s pathetic.

  4. NIMBY says:

    Too much roadwork? Here is a spot where Christine Loh should be tapped for not pushing harder. A friend bcc me his email to Backchat, which I noticed they didn’t read out to Christine Loh. so much for the independence of that public broadcaster.

    Will the Environment Dept look at influence of Corruption because the ICAC is failing? It has a huge impact on Energy Consumption.

    “The manufacture and pouring of concrete is one of the most energy and pollution intensive things that one can do. Yet corruption in the political system has seen a dramatic increase in this behavior, it takes place at all levels of corruption, from paying back the large building industry industries (3rd runway, bridge to no-where, Kai Tak Stadium, Kowloon West) to payback to the local Hung Yee Crooks village chief with contracts to re-re-pave paths, build unusable sitting out areas and bus shelters that are useless to the purpose. ”

    Let’s kill to birds with one stone, and use our CO2 emission targets to also reduce the opportunities for corruption in the system.

  5. Laguna Lurker says:

    No one should be permitted to purchase a private car without first producing proof of their earnings over the previous five years, and show that they have paid all due income tax.

    Financial institutions should be prohibited from granting a loan or entering into a hire-purchase agreement with the purchaser of a private car.

    Ah, I dream on….

  6. Scotty Dotty says:

    Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, head of the Jockey Club. “Plenty of toadying about the success of his organization as if it isn’t a money-printing monopoly.”

    Immaculate summary. Just too good 🙂

  7. NIMBY says:

    Finally got to hear some of Christine Loh’s colleagues, in an interview, and if she can work with this lot she is (1) a saint, (2)very thick skinned, (3) or perhaps more likely, she blew her retirement on a bad investment. My first instinct is to be biased toward (3), knowing a bit about her husband, and hence she had to give up her hobby with the think tank for a government sinecure and eventual pension.

    About 7 minutes in, we hear Elvis, obviously is the zombie corpse from Graceland minus brains. It’s a shame that Fenton can ask the right questions, but doesn’t quite have the guts to shame the bastard for shamelessly dancing very poorly around them, like the zombie he is.
    http://programme.rthk.hk/channel/radio/programme.php?name=radio3/peaks_troughs&d=2015-04-25&p=6793&e=304808&m=episode

  8. Damned Liberal says:

    It’s true the pan-dems don’t talk enough about the Transport Department’s collusion with Big Concrete (and never about the land premium), but I guess they’ve just decided to concentrate on more obvious core issues. Remember when the Civic Party campaigned against the Hong Kong to Macau/Zhuhai white elephant? Every newspaper condemned them for pushing up the cost of the project, and they probably lost a couple of seats as a result.

  9. NIMBY says:

    The English Schools Foundation has announced Abraham Shek as its new chairman.
    Mr Shek, who’s currently Legco’s real estate and construction functional constituency lawmaker, succeeds Carlson Tong and is appointed on a three-year term. ESF chief executive Belinda Greer, said Mr Shek’s leadership skills, expertise in management, and dedication to education made him well-placed to lead ESF into the future.

    A ménage à trois between oligarchy, three pernicious sets of parasites: The Education Dept, which controls land and tax-free status by declaring (for-profit*) schools charities in return for favours/delayed benefits themselves and to their family members; The Construction & Land Development Industry, who’s debauchery is already well known, and the Professional Managers, who all work together to defraud the stakeholders**.

    *non-profit? hardly, unless the directors take no salary, don’t direct business from these institutes to the profit of their own concerns, and truely work for the best interest ballance of all the stakeholders — such angels do not exist in HK, and seldom anywhere else.
    ** stakeholders include the citizens of HK who’s valuable land, existing schools, roadways, and utilities are used free or at discount to provide services to a small elite; the former students of schools shuttered, then given away for pennies or free to private schools, such as the Shatoukok Middle School students being turned out to the benefit of the for-profit ICHK

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