The Hong Kong government’s proposal to ban trading but not personal possession of e-cigarettes prompts an above-average amount of exasperated eye-rolling and mockery as wrong and stupid and bizarre and clueless.
It is a classic example of our bureaucrats’ default approach to contentious issues that are not subject to the wishes of overriding forces like Beijing or property tycoons. With no party-state or landed interests to serve – and no representative political structure to express majority opinion – they have to fall back on values or principles to find a clear answer to a problem. But they have none. Their sole focus is on avoiding criticism, and small but loud interest groups know it.
In fairness, we should not blame the civil servants who form the administration. As Margaret Thatcher is supposed to have said, consensus is an absence of leadership. In Hong Kong, there is no-one in charge because the Chinese Communist Party won’t let anyone be in charge. So the non-solution of problems is systematic.
The government is unable to work out a way of managing traffic flows through the cross-harbour tunnels. It can’t unravel the rent-hikes/shop-closures mess following privatization of public-housing shopping malls. It eventually granted workers the right to manage the part of their compulsory savings coming from their own salaries, but not the part contributed by employers. Providing Uber services is forbidden, but using them is OK. Even with a trillion dollars in shut-up money to play with, the government just can’t fix things.
In the e-cigarettes case, officials seem to be pandering to a well-intentioned but hyper-zealous anti-smoking lobby, while at the same time bowing to the reality that government cannot control citizens as if they were toddlers. The obvious policy, given e-cigarettes’ likely potential role in harm-reduction, is to regulate them as with normal cigarettes as a lesser evil. Instead, this ‘solution’ might actually increase ordinary tobacco use. (We’ll be charitable and assume that if this proposal creates more business for the tobacco industry it’s unintentional.)
Where will the next such moronic inanity come? Perhaps it will be the issue of overseas-trained doctors. Bureaucrats will devise a formula that increases the supply of medical staff but simultaneously doesn’t. Sounds impossible – but they will find a way.