A very old schoolboy joke has one man asking another, who looks down in the dumps, “What happened to your get up and go?” and the second replies “It got up and went”. Maybe that passed for humour 50 years ago in England, but it is not at all amusing now when people here are asking the same question of Hong Kong itself. Expressed in more modern lingo, it usually comes out as “Has Hong Kong lost its mojo?”
In fairness, a series of recent events makes the query a reasonable one. Just look at the way we have handled major infrastructure projects like the bridge to Macao and the high speed rail. But I sometimes wonder if we aren’t our own worst enemies by beating up on ourselves too thereby adding to the problem. I’m thinking here of the fuss over the Palace Museum, the controversy over additional funding for Disneyland, and so on. Not that this is a new phenomenon of course: just cast your mind back to the opening of the new airport at Chek Lap Kok in 1998, much criticised at the time but now regarded as one of the best in the world.
Let us go through the list item by item and see if we can discern some common threads. The idea of a bridge linking Hong Kong, Zhuhai and Macao is an excellent one. It would have been ideal if we had built it 20 years ago and the arguments in favour became compelling 10 years ago. If we are lucky, it might open next year. Why were we so slow off the mark?
Similarly with the high speed rail. As soon as the schedule for the network to reach Guangzhou became known, we should have been pushing ahead with plans for Hong Kong to plug in to it. We should be presenting ourselves to the world as one of the first major cities in China, not one of the last. But the project became mired in controversy with some even opposing the very idea. We did not help ourselves by putting the terminal in the wrong place, which delayed the project by years and contributed to massive cost overruns.
Another piece of infrastructure in the news recently is the Kaitak cruise terminal. A city like Hong Kong needs and deserves a world class facility which Ocean Terminal manifestly is not. The audit report criticised the utilisation rate which led some to query justification for the project at all. But actually the real problem is that we were slow to market it effectively to the global cruise industry, and the on-shore arrangements for arriving ships are woefully inadequate. Leaving well-heeled tourists standing in a taxi queue for hours does not encourage them to return or to recommend us to friends.
I am still puzzled by the furore over the Palace Museum. Capturing the project was a major coup for Hong Kong. We should have celebrated, and trumpeted the achievement to the world, instead of which we spent weeks beating up the administration over peripheral matters like exact location within the cultural district, mode of operation etc. These aspects do merit public consultation, but not whether or not to have it at all.
In Ocean Park and Disneyland, Hong Kong is blessed with two world class theme parks, a boast not many cities can make. Both provide a wonderful day out for local families, and both attract tourists by the millions. Ocean Park is now undergoing a major revamp and development, with substantial financial backing from the government by way of loans and loan guarantees. This support package got a relatively easy ride because the park is perceived as more local in nature, though in fact it is more heavily dependent on mainland tourists for patronage.
Anything to do with Disney tends to get a rougher passage despite the fact that it employs many thousands of Hong Kong people, its training programme sets the industry standard and it provides a career for around half the graduates from the Academy for Performing Arts. Luckily, Finance Committee members ignored the noise and approved the latest capital injection to speed up development of the park, but not before much negative publicity was generated.
Both parks suffered financially because of the drop off in the number of mainland tourists. Can anyone else remember the causes of the decline? Because our community chose to ask for the exit regime for Shenzhen citizens to be tightened up, and anyway some Hong Kong people took it into their heads to insult visitors from the mainland. We made it harder for customers in our core market to come here, and made them feel less welcome if they did come. Both parks were making a profit before we undermined them.
Boiling all this down into a simple analysis is not easy. Overall I get the impression that at the strategy level we are identifying the right things to do, albeit sometimes a little later than desirable. Our execution, though, has stumbled and we badly need to improve. Things might be easier if people felt more ownership of the government, and got behind it, but that will only come with political reform. More importantly, as a community we have got to accept the reality that we are irrevocably part of China, and make the best of it, rather than pretend – as some seem to – that by blocking any initiative with a mainland angle we can better serve Hong Kong people. That course is just a dead end.
So my feeling is we may not have lost our mojo altogether. But it has been badly damaged and we have a lot of work ahead to repair it.