Path to a small government?

Updated: 2013-11-22 07:22

By Jony Lam(HK Edition)

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As the 18th Central Committee of Communist Party of China (CPC) was holding its Third Plenary Session, I noticed the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region was also having its own reform in public libraries. In the past, checked-out items were returned to the staff over the counter. But now, a big box almost as high as the ceiling covers the area where the counter stood. Users drop the items they are returning through a slit, and then their records are magically updated. Perhaps, our government now engages elves, or it trucks the books to Dongguan for further processing.

The CPC plenum, which ended Nov 12, introduced reform measures that are widely described as "the most sweeping changes to the economy and social fabric in China in nearly three decades." The reform blueprint adopted at the plenum - the "Decision on Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening Reforms" - laid out 60 reform initiatives covering six key areas: the economy, politics, culture, the social environment, eco-conscious civilization, and party building.

Among the reforms, the blueprint notably calls for the strengthening of the government's role in areas that include macro management, market regulation, public service delivery, management of social stability, and environmental protection. In short, the CPC Central Committee wants to move the mainland towards a "pro-market system with a capable government."

Being in the other system, our way forward after the plenum is, naturally, an "anti-market system with an incapable government." In fact, our government has anticipated the new direction in advance, and therefore decisive results are going to be achieved well before the deadline of 2020. Weakening public service delivery in libraries - done.

Recently, the news also reported decisive results in safety inspections, with the Mandatory Building Inspection Scheme (MBIS) and the Mandatory Window Inspection Scheme (MWIS) missing their target schedules. The two schemes were introduced to empower the Building Authority to issue statutory notices to owners as necessary requiring them to carry out prescribed inspections and prescribed repairs of their buildings and windows every 10 years and five years, respectively. But, it turns out that half of the statutory notices for mandatory building and window inspections have yet to be served, more than a year after the scheme was launched.

A Development Bureau spokesman explained that the delay was due to an underestimation of the average number of household units in each building. "The original estimate of 200,000 statutory Mandatory Window Inspection Scheme notices issued annually has been revised to 350,000, representing an increase of 75 percent," he said.

This means 150,000 more stamps! Imagine that. This time, the government has my full sympathy.

I'm glad to hear that the government has finally realized the impossibility of the ambitious plan to rid us of danger and is now willing to adjust downward the number of target buildings under the schemes.

A government must learn to be content with imperfection. Rationalization, downward adjustment of expectations and targets, further rationalization - that's the only well-tested path to a small government.

The government's decision came in light of labor relations with Hong Kong characteristics on the part of government employees (perhaps outsourced, but anyway). In order to keep our city capitalistic, Housing Authority staff decided to strike for more manpower to handle the extra stamps during lunch. Disrupting work during work hours is too gung-ho and socialist that it is unimaginable. Then in a classic example of harmonious compromise based on peace and rationality, the employer rejected the staff's demand for more colleagues, and instead gave them a reduced target.

All are satisfied, except for those who are going to die falling off windows in the future whose death may or may not be attributable to the lack of people in the Housing Authority to lick stamps. But we all know the standard procedure - a demand for the Chief Executive's resignation, or his (or her) apology.

Next, I can foresee police officers staging a go-slow while they are asleep, and the commissioner will adjust the clearance rate downwards to keep his (or her) department harmonious.

Some always wonder why our city cannot attract "talents" to its politics or public service. I have always found it hard to fathom what exactly is puzzling these well-intentioned folks. The government is giving us a strong message - come to me, if you want to do nothing.

The author is a current affairs commentator.

(HK Edition 11/22/2013 page9)