Published: 00:51, March 15, 2022 | Updated: 10:29, March 15, 2022
Road map needed to regain HK’s ‘world city’ credibility
By Ho Lok-sang

Professor Liang Wannian, head of the National Health Commission’s COVID-19 leading task force, remarked lately that the pandemic is like a “final examination” to test the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s governance. Sadly, the SAR government clearly failed the examination. Regina Ip last week wrote an op-ed with the title “Pandemic makes civil service reform a must”. She observed the prevalence of a culture of self-protection and aggrandizement among the city’s civil servants that “stands in stark contrast to the much greater spirit of service and sacrifice of civil servants on the Chinese mainland.” In an earlier article in this column, I had pleaded that government policymakers put themselves in the shoes of the citizens that they serve.

Notwithstanding the rhetoric that the SAR government is making a huge and ongoing effort to improve its performance, there is an obvious lack of sensitivity among policymakers to the plight of those who are adversely and seriously affected. Among the evidence that she cited that formed a “damning indictment of a civil service that used to be regarded as one of the world’s finest” is that “hotlines are unanswered, and ambulances take hours to arrive.” I can understand why ambulances now take much longer to arrive, because demand is heavy and the ambulances need cleaning before being dispatched on another mission. But there is really no excuse why hotlines are unanswered. Citizens who phone in need help, and often urgently. Why is it so difficult to increase the number of lines so the wait to be answered is reduced to, say, no more than two or three minutes? There are lots of unemployed people who are ready to work and the SAR government certainly can afford the salaries.

Hong Kong is a world city and a business center. If the SAR government arbitrarily backs off from what it had promised, it really does hurt Hong Kong’s stature as a world city

The other day I passed by a booth manned by three people that is supposed to offer help to people in need of advice. I stood there for a few minutes, and noticed that no one stopped by to seek advice. The reason is simple. Those who need help often cannot leave their homes. Those who pass by the booth at the MTR station are unlikely to be desperate for help.

Last week one citizen phoned a TV station’s popular dinner time program to complain about the sudden and unilateral cancellation of the room reservation in one designated quarantine hotel. I can understand her frustration. The room booking is tied to a flight reservation. Not only has she to look for another room, but also to book another flight. Worse still, I went through the list of quarantine hotels, and found that among the 40-plus designated hotels, quite a few are listed as out of service until sometime in May or June.

The lady who phoned in said that cancelling the reservation unilaterally is equivalent to a breach of contract. She is right. I learnt that this was not the first time that something like this happened. As things like this unfold, trust in the SAR government is undermined. The government officials who seized the rooms for their convenience are completely insensitive to the plight of those who are affected. The employers had been waiting for months because they had endured the effects of the flight bans. They may need a helper badly so they can go out to work; they may need a helper so someone can take care of a frail elderly or a disabled family member. Now they have to look for another hotel for a room for their helper. It turns out that hardly any room is available now through June. If a room is available, it is likely to cost HK$2,000 ($255) a night or upwards, with the total ranging as high as HK$60,000; and the cost of booking another ticket may also go up.

Hong Kong is a world city and a business center. If the SAR government arbitrarily backs off from what it had promised, it really does hurt Hong Kong’s stature as a world city. If the government arbitrarily extends flight bans without being aware of the changes in the state of the pandemic in affected countries, it will be seen as heartless. Hong Kong cannot be cut off from the rest of the world for extended periods. To regain our competitiveness we need a road map to be “on the road” again.

Edward Yau Tang-wah, the secretary for commerce and economic development, recently encouraged Hong Kong people to “grit their teeth” to fight the epidemic and said Hong Kong would certainly be on the road again. However, businesses that go under may not be revived. A peer-reviewed study from a University of Hong Kong team found little evidence that banning the operation of eateries after 6 pm would slow the transmission of the epidemic. While Dr Leung Chi-chiu says a change in policy cannot be based on just one study, the case for changing course based on a peer-reviewed study is certainly stronger than the case for going ahead with a policy that is not supported by any evidence whatsoever, especially when the policy creates huge economic hardships and mental stress on many.

The author is the director of Pan Sutong Shanghai-HK Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.