Bow out with some dignity, please

South China Morning Post  |  Dec 22, 2004

By Sin-ming Shaw

Is the Hong Kong government once again set on stirring up unnecessary social discontent while fuelling rampant cynicism? The issue at stake is the West Kowloon cultural hub, which is meant to become a "world-class arts, cultural and entertainment district". At 40 hectares, it is about twice the size of Tsim Sha Tsui.
For the "culture" portion, the Tung administration insists that there must be a canopy, up to 40 storeys high, covering 55 per cent of the land. A detailed study commissioned by the Arts Development Council estimates that it would cost close to $6 billion. The government insists that the real price will be $2-4 billion, but it has not provided any backup data.
Even if the government was right, the canopy entails an absurd expense for a roof with no discernible purpose except perhaps to satisfy the ego of a few public servants hungry for a legacy.
More bizarrely, the government insists that only one private property company should develop this project. This shuts out nearly every enterprise in Hong Kong, including the government - except the largest and richest property companies.
Further, any developer worth his salt can tell you that if the land was sold by auction separately, the public coffers would receive far more revenue than by handing it to one developer. More money would mean that more could be spent on the cultural and arts side of the project. The government, however, asserts that this plan would fail.
The three finalists represent six of the richest property families. Industry analysts say that the winning bidder will become a price maker in the property market. Senior government officials insist this will not be the case. But its record in forecasting supply and demand, hence, property prices, has been comical since 1997.
The financing of the cultural portion will come from the profits of the developer. Ask any taxi driver and he will tell you that the cultural hub is, in fact, a property project. But Chief Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen denies that, too.
Everyone agrees that more culture is a good thing, and yet many people remain unconvinced that all those billions could not be more wisely spent on human capital rather than bricks and concrete. And they have said as much.
But community activists say that Mr Tsang has only paid lip service to their concerns over the years, casting doubt on the value of the ongoing public consultations.
If the government has decided that both the one-developer approach and the canopy are non-negotiable, many people are questioning the value of any consultations. District councillor Ada Wong Ying-kay, a well-known arts promoter, describes Mr Tsang's behaviour as "insincere, inconsistent and dismissive" during meetings.
The people are not angry at the developers' talent to bag a great deal - a skill which is much admired in this town. But they are mad at their leaders, who are supposed to represent them. These officials are, in many cases, acting increasingly as if they were already personal assistants to the most powerful property families - before their retirement.
A number of top officials - including former chief of police Tsang Yam-pui - have, after retirement, made a beeline for lucrative jobs in property companies that, many allege, are now beneficiaries of the government's sweetheart deals.
In a much publicised week-long celebration last winter for his son's wedding, Donald Tsang invited several hundred of his "best friends" to three different parties. The list read like Hong Kong's Who's Who. One guest half joked that he saw the owners of the entire gross domestic product in the banquet room.
The chief secretary sits above government bodies that regulate just about every business his friends own in Hong Kong. While he is well within his right to broadcast the fact that he has rich friends, is that the kind of behaviour for civil servants to emulate? Shouldn't a public leader bend over backwards to avoid any appearances of a possible conflict of interest? One senior communist visiting at the time remarked wryly that this would not happen even in Beijing, where corruption is rampant, unless the minister in question wished to finish his dessert in a detention room. During the dotcom years, the government handed over Cyberport without a tender, or wanting any money upfront, to Richard Li Tzar-kai, the young scion of the richest man in Hong Kong. The other tycoons were furious. A delegation reportedly marched to see Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, offering $80 billion to buy that land from the government - all to no avail.
As if on cue, the government this year sold to two of these unhappy developers the controversial Hunghom Peninsula waterfront housing estate. Many believe that the administration has been less than candid regarding the terms and conditions under which the deal was struck, allowing the new owners maximum flexibility in redevelopment.
Two of the three West Kowloon cultural hub finalists freely admit in private that their chances are slim, because they believe the government has long decided on the chosen one: the joint venture between Cheung Kong and Sun Hung Kai Properties.
These potentially unsuccessful bidders are, nevertheless, happy to invest a few million US dollars on the bidding process. Clearly, they must feel confident that the government will "feel their pain". Meanwhile, no outsider can obtain any financial details.
Christine Loh Kung-wai, the founder of policy think-tank Civic Exchange, demands to know: "Why is there no transparency when the public is, in fact, financing the future developer by providing it with the land?"
Others ask why the government is prepared to be flexible on the plot ratio restriction, while remaining fixated on the canopy and the one-company approach.
During the colonial heydays, the governors, too, were sympathetic to the financial interests of British firms. But they seldom forgot that they were representing higher ideals than just money. Nor did they allow friendships formed at Harrow, Winchester, or later at Oxford or Cambridge, to influence public policies.
With rare exceptions, past governors and senior civil servants retired with dignity, living off their already generous pensions. Now, senior civil servants retire to multimillion-dollar jobs with property companies or as private consultants to them.
If this administration and future ones wish to show the world that Hong Kong can indeed be better governed by ethnic Chinese, they could do a lot worse than remember a few lessons about public governance from their former colonial masters.

Sin-ming Shaw was formerly a visiting fellow at Oxford, reading British imperial history.

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