Will Govt buy up public utilities for livelihood improvement?

Pan-democratic political parties stage protest outside the headquarters of the Link Reit over their sale of shopping malls, claiming such move causes a surge of prices in shops there.

By Chan King-cheung –

In what is billed as “farewell dinner,” Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had hosted banquets for friends frequently at her official residence recently On at least one occasion, she reportedly singled out three pressing livelihood issues. They are MTR fare, shopping arcades run by the Link and the hedging of Mandatory Provident Fund.

Livelihood is no small matter. The MTR fare issue concerns the daily transport expenses of ordinary citizens. Link is the landlord of many wet markets and shopping halls in public housing estates. More recently, the Link Reit is faced with sharp criticism for forcing small business out of business, making the way for the entry of big conglomerates. Prices of goods at markets and shopping centres in public housing estates have risen continuously. Residents are angry. The issue of MPF hedging hinges upon the question of whether the retirement benefits of employees are being “hedged” by employers.

The Government has a role in all three issues. It is the major shareholder of Mass Transit Railway Corporation. The properties held by the Link are previously owned by the Government. The shopping centres held by the Link Reit are located at public housing estates owned by the Government. Residents in the public housing estates are customers of those shopping centres. The MPF scheme is the retirement funds for employees being supervised by the Government through a statutory body. Any changes to the operation and arrangements of the MPF need to be done by an amendment of the law by the Government.

Put simply, the Government can take the initiative to do something if it wants to find solution to the three livelihood issues. The MTRC can be nationalised again. By buying up the shares circulated in the market, the Government can turn MTR back into a transport body they own and manage. With that, the Government can decide the MTR fare on its own. Same for the Link Reit. The Government can dig from its pocket to buy up all shopping arcades in public housing estates from the Link. It can then lease out the units in shopping arcades at a low price to shop operators. The hedging of MPF is more simple. The Government can enact a law to abolish hedging when the law takes effect. The question is: should the government do so?

Some of the pro-government analysis argue the source of grievances of Hong Kong people towards the government stems from their anger over the lack of improvement in livelihood. And why no improvement? They argue it is because some in the Government are still acting like a miser; they are unwilling to take drastic moves and make big spending to improve livelihood. In addition to the three issues, some have urged the Government to buy up all three cross-harbour tunnels and then unify their tunnel toll so that vehicles will not flock to the tunnel that has lower toll. It is further argued that the Government can spend to intervene with matters that affect livelihood. The goal is to lessen the livelihood burden of people so that they fell less angry with the Government.

The nationalisation of public utilities and services has been implemented in Europe. That has not resulted in the easing of public discontent and a peaceful life in European countries. Hong Kong people understand well an omnipotent government can result in low efficiency and high wastage of resources. Hong Kong people are fortunate to have spared the mode of operation of public utilities in many other countries, where their government run and make decisions in all those public utilities. Time has changed. The Government’s insistence on leaving its hands off from certain public utilities and services seems to be on the verge of change.

Chan King-cheung is a veteran journalist. This is a translated version of his regular column published in the Chinese-language Ming Pao.

Photo: Picture taken from Democratic Party’s Facebook



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