by John Batten
In this age of internet ‘big data’, algorithms can process information for any set task. Now, after analysis of the most used or referenced words of a country, we have the yearly announcement of the ‘word of the year’. In Hong Kong, our 2016 ‘word of the year’ was supposedly “chaos.” Algorithmically this may be correct, but “chaos” I associate for places where the rule of law has completely broken down and people and their money are leaving. Hong Kong has political and social issues, but it is not chaotic. Raw data, can be useful, but it is only meaningful alongside further – including social and political – analysis.
After my own subjective analysis (no algorithms!), the current popular topical English word “echo-chamber” would be much better as Hong Kong’s word of the year. It captures the essence of everything that is wrong with our decision-makers and decision-making.
Over the last four years, Leung Chun-ying has supposedly promoted policies to improve the lives of the poor, elderly and disadvantaged. However, as legislator Fernando Cheung points out, despite pumping billions into social and development programmes many of these initiatives have been poorly targeted. A small example: there is a newly constructed pair of elevators connecting an underpass between two bus stops on busy Pokfulam Road near Wah Fu Estate. But, these elevators are never used as they are not near any buildings and more convenient places for the elderly to cross the road are nearby. It is a white elephant, a waste of money. Whereas, the fundamental problem never challenged is the Highway and Transport Departments’ closed mind to sensitive road-building, location and pedestrian connectivity.
Leung Chun-ying’s final policy address was given a few weeks ago. In summary, he proposed ‘development, development, development’ for various infrastructure, sporting and land development initiatives. But, development was not proposed holistically, it was not linked to substantive improvements in health, happiness, justice and education, nor expressed around ideas of humanism, sensitivity or creativity. It was purely an allocation of money to big government policies.
I have no doubt Leung Chun-ying’s ideas were bounced around and discussed – like all government decisions. But, by whom? And, how? By only ‘officials’ and government supporters? A small, tight group: an ‘echo-chamber’ of opinion. An announcement is then made. We, the public, are then told.
But, who then ‘owns’ these announcements? It is expected the public to immediately accept and embrace these ideas. When decisions are made in an echo-chamber, opinion is confined, and is often self-serving; it can be blind to consequences and overlooks alternatives and other good ideas. And, decision-makers are territorial about a decision, leading to defensiveness and illogical justifications. A decision made in an echo-chamber is often not negotiable.
The announcement of the construction of the Palace Museum at the West Kowloon Cultural District by Carrie Lam followed the usual government pattern of announcements . It is as if the Palace Museum was merely a roadway underpass: something talked about and then fitted into a road project. However, the Palace Museum is something we all should be proud of; a museum that we embrace and adds to Hong Kong’s cultural scene and education. But the decision-makers did not embrace the spirit of inclusiveness; they included no-one but themselves in this “great news.” How different the reaction would have been by the media and public, if the support of artists, district councils, pro-democracy legislators, cultural groups and educators had been canvassed first; to include those outside the echo-chamber. But there was no discussion.
Amazingly, it was history repeating itself: the announcement by the government proposing the original West Kowloon Cultural District ten years ago was also done secretively. And, Carrie Lam announced the revitalization of the heritage Central Police Station and Victoria Prison in a similar way. She announced to the public that a tall structure designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron would be built over the former prison’s exercise courtyard. This addition was out of all proportion to the prison’s Monument-status buildings. This first design was cancelled after public and media probing and the simple reminder by heritage activists that the site was, above all else, one of Asia’s most important colonial historical sites.
After Carrie Lam’s announcement of the Palace Museum, the press and public are doing what does not happen inside an echo-chamber: asking lots of sensible questions. This shocks and surprises our decision-makers. The obvious is being asked: about Hong Kong Jockey Club funding instead of through the statutory procedures of the Legislative Council; querying the immediate appointment of Rocco Yim as architect; and, why is the West Kowloon Cultural District the only location for the Palace Museum?
It is this last point that opens another can of worms. Look at the photograph below: what is the huge “Exhibition Centre” next to the Palace Museum and dwarfing it? And, where is our park? What now is its size and what are the buildings in it?
John Batten is an art critic, and convenor of the Central & Western Concern Group