Examining how outdated the thinking in HK is from US infrastructure | Leung Kai-chi

Published (HKT): 2021.04.08 09:26

The US government pushes through an infrastructure project worth US$2 trillion in the hope of successfully making another endeavor again in the wake of the earlier solution also worth US$2 trillion to fighting the coronavirus pandemic and saving the economy. A pretty mundane topic, infrastructure hardly gives rise to concern. As such, quite a large number of infrastructure projects have been given no weight to for years. In Hong Kong, infrastructure is equivalent to “white elephant project”, as over the past decades, the government has been shelling out huge amounts of money for various cross-border transport facilities, the traffic flows of which are not to the standard. It makes people feel they are gifts presented to some people rather than solutions to real issues. Hong Kong people used to be proud of the city’s infrastructure. However, comparing US infrastructure projects to Hong Kong’s, one will find how outdated the thinking of the Hong Kong government is.

Browsing through the detailed elaboration on the latest infrastructure projects in America, one will see right away the fundamental difference in rudiment. In the eyes of many people, infrastructure is tantamount to a huge development project, the scale of which is measured in terms of the amount of rebar and concrete used. But US infrastructure projects comprise a lot of dimensions concerning “infrastructure of human resources”, taking Americans as the most important infrastructure of the country, hence directly investing in the people.

More than investment in rebar and concrete

For example, 400 billion from the 2-trillion, or one-fifth of the budget, is spent in supporting attendants so that the elderly and disabled are taken care of at home and in communities. In the eyes of the current US administration, construction of an express railway is an infrastructure project, so is erection of a center for the elderly. Though the picture of the finished work of the latter may not look good, which cannot be reckoned a glaring achievement in one’s official career, it has a structural impact on the society. Just imagine how exhausting it is for family members of the elderly and disabled, who are not professional medical practitioners, to take care of them full-time without support. If their work can be taken on by professional caretakers instead, job opportunities will be created in the first place, then the original caretakers will be released to do whatever they aspire to, and the ones in need of help will be provided with more proper care, which is a win-win-win measure. In light of caretakers always being inundated with work in Hong Kong, which often gives rise to family tragedies, the Hong Kong government has never been found to be approaching the issue with the same way of thinking.

Extending one’s understanding of infrastructure from bricks to investment in a society, one will find a lot of disputes arising in recent years over various infrastructure projects in Hong Kong senseless. In retrospect, the controversy over the Guangzhou–Shenzhen–Hong Kong Express Rail Link in those days included an argument put forward by representatives of the construction industry in support of the project for it created job opportunities, as well as a rebuttal from the opposition camp that more construction workers could be benefitted if the money was spent on public housing instead. The US infrastructure project provides 1 million subsidized rental units and half a million subsidized units for sale, as well as spending 100 billion in constructing and refurbishing public schools. Right, infrastructure should cover construction of public housing and schools as well, on top of bridges and roads.

Even if our horizons are confined to construction of bridges and roads, the difference in vision between Hong Kong and the US is seen. In the US infrastructure project, preventive measures against climate change are found here and there. The project incorporates an investment of 170 billion in the electric vehicle market, including establishment of half a million charging stations, replacing at least 20% of the school buses with electric vehicles, as well as driving the federal government motorcade to substitute tens of thousands of its vehicles with electricity-driven ones. The project is also aimed at upgrading various public facilities inclusive of power grids, roadways, railways, and the capacity to provide foods under extreme weather. But as for Hong Kong, encountering typhoons each of which is more devastating than the last, we have to, however, build a “tomorrow’s Lantau” in the middle of the sea.

Are there no capable brains in Hong Kong? Why is Hong Kong’s vision of infrastructure inferior to US’s? A netizen made casual remarks that the infrastructure projects in Hong Kong are not investments for future, but an excuse for state enterprises to make a killing. Conspiracy theories like this aside, the way Hong Kong understands the China factor is a far cry from the way the US does so. In Hong Kong, since mainland China is a counterpart to tie in with, quite a lot of cross-border infrastructures operate in coordination with the general planning of Shenzhen, which has drawn in criticism that Hong Kong is “forced to be planned”. In America, since China is a rival to contend with, infrastructure is foundation for maintaining competitiveness. At the end of the day, if a country with its strength in decline merely exerts pressure on China, it would only appear to be forcible-feeble. In the document prepared by the White House to promote the infrastructure project, China is mentioned two times in the introduction, while in the following paragraphs, competition from China is accentuated quite a number of times, which is a reflection of crisis awareness. It is said in the document that the infrastructure project is conceived in response to two challenges currently faced by the US: climate crisis and the ambition of autocratic China.

To think back, one will find that the China factor used to be a sign of crisis in the British-Hong Kong era, materializing a lot of infrastructures the city has since been benefiting from. After the 1967 riots, the British-Hong Kong government understood that an unstable Hong Kong society would beg China to usher in upheavals and end their governance. From the 1970s onward, a huge number of establishments in the city and the system, including public housing, MTR, free education, and the Independent Commission Against Corruption, came up with such a crisis awareness.

Does today’s SAR government have the same sense of crisis? To them, mainland China is surely not a source of crisis. But it does not mean that Hong Kong is free from any crisis. They will tell you how foreign forces mess up Hong Kong. However, the way they tackle it is not to examine their weaknesses and improve themselves, but spend HK$8 billion on national security affairs and an industrial chain for maintaining stability. It is not that they do not have a sense of crisis, but they have chosen crackdown on dissidents as a means in response.

How shall we respond to the crisis? There are two options: get temporary relief of the problem or effect a permanent cure. Which one facilitates long-term peace and stability? The answer speaks for itself.

(Leung Kai-chi, current affairs commentator)

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