February 22, 2006

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HK's Limits of Governance

Today we had the revelation that after years of work, and millions of dollars of feasibility studies, it was decided that the plans for the West Kowloon Cultural District had to go back to the drawing board. The background is well covered by the New York Times and the Standard (for a more local view). In both articles, the journos portray the Hong Kong government, with its overly-amibitious and idealistic plans caught between Scylla (the local property developers) and Charybdis (the Hong Kong people), having to scuttle their ship, or at least come back around for another pass later.

To me, though, it seems to indicate the limits of legitimacy of a Hong Kong government that is not elected by popular mandate. The government's inability to counter both the official and unofficial power of local property developers, and also the skepticism of the public, is because they do not have a strong general mandate of the will of the people to go ahead with their agenda(s).

Many popularly elected governments, it is true, would have the same problems with vested interests, particularly one that makes up as much of the economy as the property tycoons. But if they had been chosen by the people, at least they could brandish that endorsement to get major agenda items like this done.

The process of getting the mandate for a program like this, too, would have forced the government to really explain to the Hong Kong people why they need a cultural centre, and why bringing in the Pompidou or the Guggenheim is making the city more cosmopolitan rather than an example of cultural imperialism. That process would have also highlighted weaknesses in their plan that they would need to address.

The government didn't bother doing it because they didn't have to. And now they are paying the price. They must face the fact that public consultations aren't enough anymore in a complex polity like Hong Kong. The city cannot be run by a civil service on autopilot. Democratic politics is not an inconvenience - it is the fairest way an advanced economy with a highly mature population can sort out what ought to be done.

posted by HK Dave on 02.22.06 at 06:27 PM in the Hong Kong democracy/politics category.


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I would be very surprised if in 10 years the wall of high-rise apartment blocks hasn't simply advanced to cover the new reclamation.

Cultural district? Public open space? Who needs it? And let's get rid of that pesky canopy, while we're at it - it'll only mean a height limit on those lovely luxury supertalls ...


posted by: Argleblaster on 02.23.06 at 08:05 PM [permalink]

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