Hong Kong’s white elephants are, if you will forgive a mixed metaphor, coming home to roost. Extravagant projects were launched on the dubious basis that tomorrow will be much like today, only more so. Well, we have changed all that.
Much writing about the pandemic assumes that when it is all over – a vaccine or a dependable cure having appeared – we will all go back to doing what we did beforehand. 2002, or whenever the happy year is, will be like 2019 but without the protests.
The more plausible alternative, though, is that this will not happen. Some of the changes made by Covid will not reverse themselves. There will be a new normal, and for some people this may not be pretty.
In particular the old idea of travel as an entertaining diversion without a downside as long as you can afford it has been decisively quashed. People have found themselves trapped by distant diseases in countries where they only intended to stay a few days.
There is no point in going on holiday if you have to self-isolate for a fortnight when you get back. Nipping across the boundary for a few cans of baby food is not going to make sense if you have to pay for a medical check-up first.
Then again, some of our compatriots may have got the message that they are not entirely welcome.
The breeze has already been felt at Ocean Park and Disneyland. The former is being kept afloat on a government hand-out, the latter has been told that it will never expand to what Walt’s heirs thought was its full size.
Well, both these establishments have been going a long time and given a great deal of pleasure. We must not discourage fun palaces. What are we to make, though, of more recent innovations, intended to be practical?
There is, for example, the cruise ship terminal. This has never been very busy, though it was increasing patronage steadily until this year. But now? Cruise ships are being mothballed or scrapped all over the world. This is due to the discovery that your oceanic experience may include being trapped in your cabin for a week or two while the crew desperately searches for a port which will let your disease-laden vessel drop its anchor.
Cruise ship passengers have traditionally been elderly folk who were not looking for adventure. They have been put off.
This is good news from the pollution point of view. In what now seems a stroke of prescient parsimony the government dismissed as too expensive the suggestion that the cruise terminal should be equipped to supply visiting ships with shore power. So they all run diesel generators all the time. Fewer visits, fewer fumes.
Then there is the third runway, still under construction and a monument to the view that air travel could only go onwards and upwards. At the moment we do not even need two.
What the new normal post-pandemic will be remains to be seen, though it will not be seen by some of the more financially fragile airlines currently on government life-support. An interesting suggestion is that passengers will no longer be willing to change planes. Large hub airports will lose business as the airlines switch to running direct flights between more places.
Another possibility is that people will simply rearrange their lives so that they do not need to fly so much. It seems quite likely that we will never actually need the third runway. We will not get our money back.
Same goes for the most elephantine project in Hong Kong history, the express rail link. Before Covid there was some discussion of whether it would make a profit. This was an abuse of language. The express rail link will never make a profit because it will never repay the enormous cost of building it, which the government effectively wrote off as a donation to national unity.
The question was actually whether the income from fares would cover the running costs. I infer from the prolonged silence on this point that it was not doing so before January, and six months of care and maintenance with no passenger income at all have certainly not helped. No doubt further donations from the government will be needed. The link is the gift that keeps on taking.
These examples are monuments to the planning fallacy: the misguided notion that we know what the future will look like and can make massive investments in the confidence that they will pan out. Actually the record of short-range predictions is pretty rough and the long-range ones are hopeless.
This brings us to the one grandiose project which we can still hope to see cancelled: a monstrous reclamation between Hong Kong and Lantau, construction to be spread over 30 years.
I do not know, you do not know and the planners do not know what will happen to Hong Kong’s population figures in the next 30 years. Perhaps – perish the thought – the place will become less attractive, a project which seems to be dear to the heart of the Liaison Office. Perhaps increasing wealth will lead, as it usually does, to lower population growth.
Or perhaps the sea level will rise by a couple of metres, putting the whole project underwater either literally or financially, whichever you prefer.
Nobody in a complex and changing world can be blamed for failing to prophesy the future. They can be blamed, in this uncertain environment, for making massive bets on one view of the future being correct.
Covid should have taught us one thing: that we do not know what will happen next and should act accordingly, rather than “planning” for a future which may never come.
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