I remember the early hours of 1 November 1999 when we reached final agreement with the Walt Disney Company after nine months of gruelling negotiations. There had been no public consultation on whether or not Hong Kong should have such a theme park before the deal was done, nor was there an open competitive tender. What would have been the point? Disney at the time were operating nine of the world’s top ten theme parks and we in the administration wanted one for ourselves. We trusted in the common sense of the Hong Kong community, and in particular our legislative councillors, to respond appropriately if we were able to strike a deal.
To seek approval for the project, we went to Legco seven times within the month of November that year – twice to the House Committee, twice to the Economic Services Panel, once each to the Public Works Sub Committee and Establishment Sub Committee, and finally to the full Finance Committee comprising all the members of our legislature. The project was approved with only three dissenting votes, we signed the final contract documents in December and as a result Hong Kong got its Disneyland more than a decade before Shanghai got theirs.
If there is one thing we can be sure of following the present saga over the Palace Museum, it is clear it would not be possible to do such a deal now, or obtain approval for one after the event. Indeed, any sensible organisation would hesitate to engage the SAR Government on anything substantial given our present political climate.
From memory, the atmosphere started to change in the early part of this century. In December 2000 we went to Finance Committee to seek approval for a government contribution towards the cost of a new exhibition centre adjacent to the airport. In that case, no deal had been done and we were proposing to engage in a full scale global competitive tender exercise to select the private sector partner. The project brief had been subject to extensive consultation with Legco Members and all relevant parties, and had been amended to meet public comments. Yet those who had promised in private their full support proceeded to publically challenge the project in the actual meeting, so as to score some political points. In the event, the money was approved twelve months later. We managed to cut the overall project delay to only four months by going ahead in the meantime with some parts of the process that did not require funding approval. The final contracts were signed in the middle of the SARS crisis in 2003 and our new world class venue, Asia World Expo, opened ahead of schedule in 2005.
After that it was all downhill. An urgent need to expand Hong Kong Disneyland a few years after opening was delayed by a mixture of political timidity and the knowledge that any proposal from the administration would be opposed whatever the merits. Even now, in discussion on funding the third phase of park expansion, those who have spent a decade complaining it is too small are objecting to plans to make it bigger. There is an urgent need to proceed with phase two of AWE – we are losing business and employment opportunities at the very time there is a crying need for both – because no-one has the political courage or energy to fight the reflex negative response that can be guaranteed.
It is against this background that I judge the performance of our chief secretary Carrie Lam in the exercise to secure an outpost of the Palace Museum for Hong Kong. Does she come across as arrogant? Among friends, let’s be honest, sometimes she does. Could the PR have been handled better? Absolutely. But the bottom line here is that Lam is an outstanding officer with some four decades of public service. She is honest and trustworthy – not a hint of scandal – and extremely hard working. And she has done a great job for Hong Kong in securing this magnificent project for our city. Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing etc will be eating their hearts out. Singapore – which has so often moved decisively ahead of us in recent years – will be quietly envious of our good fortune.
Yet none of this counts for anything in what now passes as our political arena. Although there are some minor gripes about the timing and scope of the public consultation (actually the West Kowloon legislation gives the board discretion here) it does not take a genius to see the real opposition derives from the fact that the mainland is involved. Sadly, some cannot pass up the opportunity of a new stick with which to beat our sovereign power.
What is the root cause of this poison? There are a number of contributing factors, but in my view the main one is the repeated failure to move ahead with meaningful political reform. If the chief executive had been selected by us, would we not be more inclined to support him (or her) and his ministers?
One thing is for sure, unless and until we lance this boil, Hong Kong will continue to lose ground and the whole community will suffer.