On Wednesday I was glancing through the online edition of the SCMP and came across a rather idiotic opinion piece about Cyberport and PCCW by one John Tsang, Secretary for Commerce, Industry and Technology. Well, no surprise there, as the SCMP prints all sorts of nonsense on its opinion pages. What I didn’t realize until later in the day was that this drivel had been printed in no less than six Hong Kong newspapers. Today’s Standard lifts the lid on what happened behind the scenes on Tuesday night:
The Standard was visited by what, in another democracy, would be considered an extraordinary request: Print, unedited and uncut, 1,800 words of the government's rationalisation for its 1998 decision to bypass the legislature and hand over 24 hectares of some of the most valuable land on Earth to the son of Hong Kong's biggest tycoon in a bid to belatedly drag the SAR into the cyber revolution.
The Standard refused to print the article, quite rightly so, but the SCMP and five other newspapers toed the line. Unfortunately for the government, having gone to all this trouble it seems highly unlikely that anyone reading the article would be convinced by John Tsang’s line of argument.
The government’s argument is that they wanted Cyberport built quickly so that they could beat off competition from Singapore (et al) and attract more high-tech companies to Hong Kong. Giving the development to a single developer was the best way to do that, and Richard Li had already approached the government with plans for such a scheme, so it made sense to give his company the contract.
Which is all very well, but the simple fact is that there was no need for Cyberport. In the few years since the contract was awarded, broadband has become ubiquitous, and other developers have come up with several so-called intelligent buildings, most of them in much more convenient locations. Cyberport has attracted some tenants, but mainly because the rental charges were so low, not because of its unique attraction to high-tech companies.
If it wasn’t vital to complete the Cyberport project so quickly, it clearly wasn’t necessary to rush through the process and award the contract to PCCW before anyone else could bid. I actually don’t think the government consciously favoured PCCW, but these and other decisions have the effect of giving a significant advantage to a small number of large and well-connected businesses run by the Li family and others.
The most disingenuous argument used by the government is that we should simply be grateful that this development has taken place:
We have transformed a piece of disused land at Telegraph Bay into a lively modern community, enhancing the value of its neighbourhood and enriching the quality of life of Hong Kong.
On which basis the government should release all the rest of the available land in Hong Kong so that more “lively modern communities” could be built. Except, of course, that the large property developers persuaded the government to stop releasing land - because that way they could maintain high property prices. One effect of that is probably to convince large high-tech companies to locate somewhere cheaper - which rather blows away the government’s main justification for Cyberport.