“A City Mismanaged”: How successive Chief Executives have failed Hong Kong people

A book review by Trevor Bailey

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Leo F. Goodstadt

Three Chief Executives and their policy makers have failed the people of Hong Kong because of lack of guts and gumption, according to Leo F. Goodstadt, former head of the Government’s Central Policy Unit. They have even turned upside down the spirit of the Basic Law. Leo does not believe Carrie Lam will be any better than her predecessors.

Fresh off the University of Hong Kong’s presses is Leo’s new book, “A City Mismanaged: Hong Kong’s Struggle for Survival”. It makes depressing reading. Here are some snippets of Leo’s gripes about our gutless administration:

HOUSING: “What is missing in contemporary Hong Kong is government acceptance of a duty to ensure an adequate supply of decent homes.”

The failure to provide an adequate supply of building sites was inexcusable, Leo writes. Chief Executive CY Leung said in 2012, “Hong Kong is not short of land.” “But Chief Executives and their ministers grossly misused this asset, mainly through knowingly allowing laws and regulations to be ignored. … Those in power had long since forfeited public trust when it came to housing and land issues.

“The New Territories offered an important case study of how, over the last two decades, bureaux and other government agencies found themselves unable to enforce legislation and to implement official policies. Quite simply the Government had failed to spend the money required to hire professional staff needed to oversee its land resources and to enforce the day to day legislation governing land and its utilisation. The community paid the price. The housing supply was sabotaged and respect for the law undermined. A shocking outcome for the people of Hong Kong.”

For all his erudition, Leo leaves out many crucial aspects of Hong Kong’s housing problems in his 227-page book. He does not address the way the system is skewered so only a few super-rich families can afford the upfront premiums of large residential projects. David Webb and others have proposed solutions, such as the Government collecting its taxes throughout the life of a project rather than upfront. Leo does delve into the obscenity of subdivided flats. “It is not unknown for 60 to 70 people to be living in a three-room flat.” He doesn’t propose legislative solutions to this blight on the name of a rich city-state nor to the problem of nano-flats built by developers and sold for millions. In Hong Kong it is the norm for business people to turn morality on its head. The attitude is that if we are not screwing them every which way including sideways we are not doing our best for our families already richer than Croesus’s wildest dreams.

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A City Mismanaged: Hong Kong’s Struggle for Survival. Author, Leo F. Goodstadt. Hong Kong University Press. ISBN, 9888455982

STUDENTS AT THE MARKET’S MERCY:

Leo argues that Government polices have failed university students. “… Makeshift education policies in the past two decades seem indefensible… For the Government the adoption of the self-financing principle had been the ideal business strategy for the original shortfall in university places.” The market shifted, however. “The cost of these wasted years of study had been paid in advance by the students and their parents who had been induced to invest in qualifications whose credibility would evaporate as the post-secondary sector faded away. There were no indications that Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive and her team were prepared to invest heavily in expanding high-quality educational programmes which an economy like Hong Kong needs, society deserves and whose costs are well within the affordability of public finances.”

HOW POLICY MAKERS HAVE MISINTERPRETED THE BASIC LAW SO THEY CAN FAIL THE PEOPLE:

The Basic Law is an outstanding model of a constitutional stature, Leo writes. The Government, however, has chosen to misinterpret it.

The most frequently cited and most faithfully observed has been Article 107: “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall follow the principle of keeping expenditure within the limits of revenue in drawing up its budget, and strive to achieve a fiscal balance, avoid deficits and keep the budget commensurate with the growth rate of its gross domestic product.”

This Article has been used by the Government to justify failing hospital patients, students and low-income families, among other deliberate policy omissions, Leo says. Another Basic Law Article, No. 145, says, “On the basis of the previous social welfare system, the Government… shall on its own formulate policies on the development and improvement of this system in the light of the economic conditions and social needs.” The Government has ignored this and the public has been denied its rights to improved social services under the Basic Law, Leo writes.

MISMANAGING THE MAINLAND:

Chief Executives and their ministers have bungled Hong Kong’s relations with the Mainland. They have willfully misinterpreted the statements of China’s leaders that Hong Kong should stand on its own feet, look after its citizens and nurture its own prosperity. Despite Hong Kong’s obvious success, Chief Executives have denigrated their own people, saying they do not measure up to Mainlanders, and tried to integrate our economy with China’s despite the vast gulf between our systems. Good intentions fall apart when they come up against vested interests at local level. “…Until the Mainland overcomes the sources of its business backwardness so roundly denounced by Premier Li in 2015, the nation’s modernisation will continue to be seriously hampered, and only a limited partnership with Hong Kong will be possible.”

A newspaper article cannot cover adequately Leo’s book. This story summarises parts of it and inevitably includes paraphrasing. Yes, some opinion and personal disgust are injected. There is a lot more about our Administration’s failures since the Hand-Over in the book. We got our copy from the local Kidnapped bookstore.

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