Hong Kong ends the week looking at two contrasting styles of government. The Leisure and Cultural Services Department under Lau Kong-wah spits in the public’s face with a display of mendacity and misinformation. Eddie Ng’s Education Bureau, on the other hand, shows refreshing honesty, openness, courage and integrity. Both concern the relationship between public and private interests.
Most taxpayers probably vaguely assume that the LCSD exists to provide the Hong Kong people with parks, museums and concert halls. But, like most government departments, their priority is non-residents – or specifically the landlords or ‘tourism industry’ that benefit from visitors’ apparently endless and mindless expenditure. Hence the widely unpopular plan to ‘revitalize’ the Tsimshatsui waterfront by sealing it off for three years and then letting property giant New World run it for another 20 years.
In order to counter allegations of collusion with property tycoons, the LCSD is insisting that ‘no luxury shops or high-end restaurants’ will be opened on the promenade. It is ‘not a property or commercial project’, and therefore New World can’t possibly make any money out of it.
However, this extension of the tacky and dreary waterfront will lead right up to a New World-owned property and commercial project, namely a hotel, which is where luxury shops and high-end restaurants will be.
It’s not the scummy, ‘tourism first, screw everyone else’ nature of the deal that really offends; it’s the insult to our intelligence in expecting us to imagine a big local developer doing something and not making money out of it. It’s the pretense that’s pathetic.
This nicely unfolding little controversy is also a classic example of the Hong Kong bureaucracy’s demented stubbornness when trying to ram through a stupid and unpopular idea. They could have anticipated hostility. They could have listened to critics and considered other options. But no – it’s going to be ‘we are right and you are wrong’ all the way. It could be a gift to the pro-democrats as a way to stir up public feelings (though they seem to have chosen this moment to get bogged down in a bleat-fest over a meeting with a Beijing official).
By contrast with the LCSD, the Education Bureau provides an example of no-nonsense transparency and truthfulness that gives us hope for governance in Hong Kong.
It appears that some schools, along with other buildings in the city, have unsafe levels of lead in the water. Education officials are taking action. The children most at risk of suffering brain damage from this poison are the little ones in kindergartens. Therefore, the bureau announces, ‘we will fund water filters for all establishments except kindergartens’.
Wow. It’s not often we get that sort of frankness from these government people, but there you heard it straight: to hell with the little bastards.
The logic is that kindergartens are privately run. If government paid for water filters, the owners could capitalize on this advantage in the market – ‘We’re not giving kids brain damage any more’ – and charge higher fees and so make more profit. Transfer of benefits! This principle could be applied to other dangers to kids in kindergartens. So if a little child is bleeding to death following an accident with scissors, public paramedic and hospital services could just shrug and put the phone down. ‘Privately run’, sniff. Think of the money we’d save.
I declare the weekend open with the cheerful thought that exposing kindergarten kids to lead will in time improve the supply of intellectually suitable workers to fill the dead-end tourism jobs that New World will be creating at the Hung Hom end of the waterfront promenade. A win-win!