Originally Published on 15 February 2007
Development is a buzz word that enjoys universal appeal. That is why is it appears on every single page, often dozens of times, of Mr Donald Tsang’s election platform for the Chief Executive. Mr Tsang goes further in coining a new phrase, the “Progressive View on Development”, to characterise his own brand of development.
This arouses much interest not only because Mr Tsang is not known to be a fan of visions and theories, but because the phrase bears striking similarity to the current theory advocated by Chairman Hu Jintao in the Mainland – the “Scientific View on Development”.
The Scientific View on Development has been adopted since 2003 as the underlying philosophy behind China ’s national strategy. It emphasize a “people-focussed, holistic and coordinated sustainable development. In essence, it reflects the realization by Chinese planners that sheer emphasis on economic growth at the expense of environmental degradation, resource depletion and widening wealth gaps is simply unsustainable. New questions must be asked: For whom should development serve? What constitutes good, or bad development? Singular focus on growth by numbers is simply the wrong path to follow.
Mr Tsang did not back up his “Progressive View” with any theoretical framework. Instead, he listed a long list of large-scale projects which he believed should be accelerated in the next 5-year term: cross-border roads and bridges, express rail links, development of Lantau, East and West Kowloon, border zones and a range of new towns in Hung Shui Kiu, Kwu Tung, Ping Che, and so on.
He went on to say that ‘an appropriate balance should be struck amongst economic, environmental and cultural benefits’ though he seemed too busy to tell us on what basis would such a balance be struck. These are hardly comforting words when the point of balance will ultimately be determined by a candidate who presided over a dire situation of air pollution, who refused to invest in biological treatment for sewage around Victoria harbour, and who oversaw the sorry state of Star Ferry Pier and Former Marine Police Station at Tsimshatsui Hill.
For any reader who cares to flip through Mr Tsang’s election platform, the message cannot be clearer: the “Progressive View on Development” means accelerated construction. Success will be measured by the number of completed projects, not by quality-of-life measures. This is the opposite of what the Central Government seeks to abandon by promoting the “Scientific View on Development”.
Is this conceptual confusion between development and construction deliberate, or a result of Mr Tsang’s overarching desire to look after business interest?
Whatever the reason behind it will not be an easy path to take for Mr Tsang even if he is almost guaranteed a position to govern for the next 5 years. Sooner or later, people will ask some obvious questions: do we need to flatten more land and construct more new towns when our population growth rate is declining? How will a border development zone benefit our workers when the sites are less accessible from Hong Kong than Shenzhen? Will more cross-border roads and bridges generate a reasonable rate of return when social and environmental costs are taken into account?
Mr Tsang’s strongest argument is job creation. His cheerleader who can hardly represent the engineering profession has been quick to jump in with no questions asked. Yet anyone who is familiar with the ‘Broken Window’ fallacy can point out that building a piece of superfluous infrastructure is the same as deliberately breaking a shop window to create jobs.
On the face of it, a broken window puts people to work and increases total output. Since this creates jobs, would we be better off breaking lots of windows and repairing them?
The fallacy lies with "what is seen and what is not seen."
What is seen is the broken window repairing and the workers that get employed, and the money they in turn spend. What is not seen is that these workers and resources would have been employed in something else if not for the broken window. What ultimately benefits society is not jobs but goods.
In the local context, should our public resource not be spent to tackle our biggest challenges – environmental degradation and worsening poverty? Jobs can equally be created by diverting resources to these socially desirable projects. Furthermore, as Mr Tsang wishes, these alternative projects can proceed faster because they will enjoy wide community support.
Many of these projects are crying out for investment – Harbour Area Treatment Scheme, integrated waste treatment facilities, Shatin-Central rail link, adaptive reuse of Central Police Station complex, outstanding community facilities promised by the Urban Council many years ago. The list goes on.
Engineers and construction workers alike will benefit from these jobs – more and faster. More important, the output of their work will serve public interest, not stand idle as white elephants.
How progressive is Mr Tsang when his view on development goes against the tide?
Albert Lai Kwong-tak is the Chairman of the Hong Kong People’s Council for Sustainable Development and Vice-chairman of the Civic Party