Supporters have proposed a new government bureau be set up to jointly handle culture, sports and tourism in Hong Kong after the city’s leader on Sunday revealed her intention to give the administration a facelift.
The restructuring should also break the decades-long status quo of separating the handling of public and private housing with two different bureaus, merging them into one to increase efficiency, others said. The Transport and Housing Bureau should be split up, they suggested, with the Development Bureau taking over housing matters.
On Sunday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor dropped the biggest hint yet that she intends to set up two new bureaus to handle cultural development and housing coordination, despite having less than a year left of her term, which expires in June. She has not said whether she will seek re-election.
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The need to turn Hong Kong into a “hub for arts and cultural exchanges between China and the rest of the world” was listed in Beijing’s 14th five-year plan, the country’s development blueprint for 2021 to 2025. Beijing officials have also repeatedly called on the city to tackle pressing housing issues.
Experts and industry leaders quickly weighed in on Sunday on how restructuring would best serve Hong Kong.
Gary Wong Chi-him, a board member of semi-official think tank the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said setting up a new bureau for cultural affairs would help the city better position itself under Beijing’s plan, but its scope should go beyond arts and culture.
He said the new bureau should include sports and tourism, pointing out the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District – home to a Hong Kong version of Beijing’s Palace Museum – was expected to open next year.
The following year, a sprawling zone set aside for sports facilities in Kai Tak is expected to become functional, while the city will join neighbouring Macau and Guangdong province as joint hosts of the 2025 National Games.
“The two areas are closely connected with tourism,” he said. “Tourism is about attracting tourists to stay for an extra night in the hotel and spend a little more. A touch of art, culture and sports allows them to do so.”
An advocate of such a set-up since July, Wong – tipped as a contender to lead a new bureau if it were set up, according to a source – said linking these disciplines together was natural in places such as Singapore and Beijing.
Wong said the problem was that arts and sports came under the Home Affairs Bureau, which also handled diverse issues ranging from district councillors’ oath-taking to youth development.
Former lawmaker Timothy Fok Tsun-ting, who represented the sports, performing arts, culture and publication functional constituency between 1998 and 2012, said he could see the idea gaining traction.
“Discussions [on sports development] are sprouting because of the Olympics,” he said.
“One of the biggest challenges in sports development is the lack of facilities. And the management of elite athletes has come under a few bureaus.”
He said a specialised bureau could help formulate suitable policies.
The call for a culture bureau can be traced back to 2012 when former chief executive Leung Chun-ying floated the idea. But it proved unsuccessful due to filibustering by the opposition, Leung said.
Visual artist and activist Kacey Wong Kwok-choi, who recently moved to Taiwan, said the plan would work if the new bureau was headed by professionals in a full democracy. But he feared a new body would be used to target artists for political purposes.
Citing the Arts Development Council’s cancellation of concerts this month by Canto-pop singer and activist Denise Ho Wan-sze, Wong said the space for creativity had shrunk noticeably in recent months.
With funding and space potentially at stake in the future for artists willing to challenge the authorities, “it could mean that some arts could go underground, and that the art scene in Hong Kong will move increasingly away from the rest of the world”, he said.
The city’s housing problems have also been a long-running issue. Xia Baolong, director of the cabinet-level Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, in July called on local officials to do away with cramped subdivided flats by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Calls for the Transport and Housing Bureau to be split had also lingered for years. While the bureau is responsible for building public rental flats, the Development Bureau oversees private housing and is in charge of allocating land, creating what critics see as too much red tape.
Extra pressure has also been piled on the transport bureau in recent years because of problems affecting the city’s rail operator.
Francis Lam Ka-fai, chairman of the Institute of Surveyors’ planning and development division and housing policy panel, said he was told by politicians close to the government that the bureau would be split into two, but the Development Bureau would take over housing.
That would mean public entities including the Housing Authority, which oversees public flats, would come under the Development Bureau.
Lam said he would support the move, as long as it could take “forward the process for housing supply”.
“We welcome combining all efforts under one roof, instead of having separate bureaus and departments to handle things,” he said.
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, the transport minister from 2012 to 2017, said he believed there was a need for a bureau rejig.
“Based on my five years’ experience as secretary for transport and housing, I think housing should be aligned to lands and planning from the present Development Bureau to form a new Housing, Planning and Lands Bureau,” he said.
He also suggested transport – covering land, sea, aviation and logistics – should form a single bureau.
Veteran engineer Greg Wong Chak-yan, a former vice-chairman of a government-appointed land supply task force, said he preferred to have a new authority focus on public housing because the Development Bureau would become very big if it had to handle the matter.
“It will not be easy to manage, and [there won’t be] enough focus on the most important issue of housing for the grass roots and lower or middle class,” he said.
Sze Lai-shan, from the Society for Community Organisation NGO, said she was in favour of the Development Bureau handling housing affairs.
She said there was constantly no land to build homes as the bureau would sometimes not grant sites to housing authorities.
“If they are combined under the same secretary, then it will be easier,” she said.
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