Opinion Politics & Protest Travel & Transport

Government by brainwave, or by bull? How Hong Kong civil servants were robbed of their power

Many of us have been waiting for years for the government to take the rather obvious step of making the middle Cross-Harbour Tunnel more expensive to encourage people to try the less-crowded other two.

It seemed last week that this was finally going to happen. The government was going to introduce a motion in the Legislative Council to endorse a deal in which the Eastern tunnel (which belongs to the government) would put its fees down, the middle one (which also belongs to the government) would put its fees up, and the Western one (which belongs to CITIC until 2023) would reduce its fees and collect a large dollop of public money to compensate for the resulting loss of income.

Western Harbour Crossing

Western Harbour Crossing. File Photo: Citizen News.

Alas, it appears that this rather obvious move has been shelved at the moment because it was opposed by the DAB, still smarting over its role in the government’s effort to raise the age at which social welfare recipients become old.

The legislative poodles are rebelling, as they often do, curiously, when anything is proposed which might make motoring more expensive. It seems to be difficult for people on generous legislative salaries to get their heads around the point that actually most Hong Kong people do not own cars.

What struck me as interesting about this proposal, though, was the way in which it originated.

Transport Secretary Frank Chan said that the proposal was negotiated by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who personally discussed the deal in Beijing with CITIC group. As a result, the chance of any change was “near-zero.”

Another of Carrie’s Beijing brainwaves, then. There must be something in the air up there.

This is the way we do things now, it seems. Indeed I have complained before that these days we seem to have government by brainwave, a dangerous innovation.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam

Chief Executive Carrie Lam. File Photo: inmediahk.net.

In the old colonial days, when Governors had no claims to democratic legitimacy and were not expected to have “visions,” the production of government plans and policies was generally a bottom-up thing.

People in the relevant department would spot a problem or an opportunity for improvement, and propose it to their superiors. This plan would be passed up to the relevant policy branch, where it would be critically reviewed by the eager amateurs of the Administrative Grade.

If it passed this ordeal it would be passed on to the Chief Secretary and the Financial Secretary, who would consider its urgency in comparison with other plans calling on the government’s financial and administrative resources.

I do not suggest that this system was infallible by any means, nor that it was invariably followed. Governors sometimes make important interventions: clean up that police force, build that housing. Sometimes the results were disappointing, or proved unsaleable to the general public, like road pricing.

Still, this meant that on the whole any proposal had two characteristics: it had originated with people who knew what they were talking about and it had been assessed by people who could without jeopardising their own career prospects suggest that it might be better to do something else, or indeed nothing.

civil servants

Government headquarters. File Photo: Apple Daily.

This system was abruptly changed in 1997. Brandishing their bogus claims to a democratic mandate, Chief Executives claimed the right to extrude initiatives to which the civil service’s expected response was obedience.

So under Tung Chee-hwa we had, for a while, housing targets. Under Donald Tsang, the public housing programme was surreptitiously dismantled. Under Leung Chun-ying it was revived, though far too late to do anything for Mr Leung’s reputation.

And we have Carrie going to Beijing, running into some superior CITIC person and doing a deal with him which was apparently only divulged to the relevant department – or indeed to the relevant policy secretary – afterwards.

The puzzling thing about this is that changing the tunnel tolls is a thunderously obvious idea which has been floating around for years. The Transport Department’s response has always been that as far as the Western tunnel is concerned it would not help. Although the tunnel is far from capacity it is connected to Central by only one lane of road and this is already the scene of major morning queues.

How typical, you may think, that the Transport Department thinks the only people who count are those who drive to work in Central. But if you are going through the Western tunnel to Pokfulam or Aberdeen the road connection is worse. Still one lane, but steep hills and traffic lights.

Western Harbour Crossing

Hong Kong island exit of Western Harbour Crossing. Photo: Google Maps.

So basically we are asked to believe that the government built a three-lane tunnel leading into about one and a half lanes of road. Isn’t planning wonderful?

I have not been through the Western tunnel recently – too expensive – but when the Google Streetview car went through it still offered only one lane to Central so I suppose this is still the case.

Accordingly, it appears that Carrie’s brainwave was to throw a large sum of public money at CITIC to no good purpose. Sounds familiar. She’ll ask them to build a bridge next.

I have some misgivings about the Transport Department’s warnings because the department seems to have an instinctive response to any suggestion, which is to come up with a technical sounding reason for doing nothing.

When the management of our estate humbly petitioned for a bus shelter outside the gate for the benefit of minibus riders the response, we were told, was that this could not be done because it would obstruct the pavement.

Commissioner for Transport Mable Chan

Commissioner for Transport Mable Chan. File Photo: GovHK.

This seems a bit rich coming from a department which has littered pavements all over Hong Kong with signs, fences, bollards and barriers despite the overwhelming evidence from the rest of the world that this abundance does not increase safety, it reduces it.

Also, about 30 yards from the proposed bus shelter you come to a place where the Transport Department itself chopped a foot off the pavement to accommodate a totally unnecessary roundabout.

Still, it is a worry that ideas which used to be critically assessed are now accepted limply if they come from the Chief Executive. Psychologists have observed a tendency for people in positions of power to abandon thoughtful policy formation and instead to place an unjustified faith in the accuracy of their own instincts.

Or to put it in more homely words, the bigger the bull… well watch the video:

Government by brainwave, or by bull? How Hong Kong civil servants were robbed of their power