Opinion | The lack of foresight regarding the New Year travel chaos bodes ill for Hong Kong

I bet CEO John Lee Ka-chiu secretly breathed a sigh of relief his duty visit to Beijing was before new year. What would President Xi Jinping say to Lee if he saw, like all of us, the disturbing footage of thousands of mainland visitors stranded at a train station or delayed at the border for hours, unable to return home after attending New Year’s Eve in the city celebrations?
Hong Kong prides itself on its interconnectedness – within the city as well as with the mainland – and its world-class transport network, but it has failed to connect or move people from point A to point B. If Kai Tak stranded tourists fiasco was an epic fail, what was the new years eve train wreck of poor planning, poor management and poor coordination?
No one predicted that the fireworks on New Year’s Eve, the biggest ever, would lead to such a failure. Visitors certainly got a first-hand experience of the city’s “optimism and industriousness” – qualities mentioned in the run-up to the celebrations. The government seemed optimistic, doing everything to attract people, but lacked zeal in crowd management.
The biggest problem may be that the government wasn’t really that optimistic. Authorities said the fireworks will brought many visitors, but maybe they didn’t really believe it. How else could they be surprised by stranded passengers?

The government has made a habit of saying one thing and doing another, sending mixed messages through contradictory policies.

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The world welcomes 2024 with spectacular New Year’s fireworks and light shows

The world welcomes 2024 with spectacular New Year’s fireworks and light shows

One example is the official trust in attracting talent and their families, which still continues schools close and slanted classesjust to reverse course after the increase in enrollments from, well, the influx of families who heeded the call. This bad habit damages the trust in the government. When our leaders don’t mean what they say, they inspire little credibility.
Among the excuses made by employees the last fiasco was that the number of people traveling to the border after the fireworks exceeded expectations. That’s not an excuse. The tourism sector is alarming about the trend of mainland day-trippers for a time. Hong Kong’s struggle to convince mainland visitors to spend the night here is nothing new.

Also, tourists don’t have to wait for hours for buses to arrive and take them to their destination. The same thing happened after concerts in Central last November. Road conditions were definitely predictable.

It seems clear that foresight is not this government’s forte, and that should be a concern for everyone, especially those in Zhongnanhai. The government’s lack of preparedness and inability to foresee something as simple as what happened in the early hours of 2024 should raise alarm flags.

How Hong Kong hopes to avoid a repeat of New Year’s Eve border chaos

There is a lot at stake for Hong Kong. We need foresight to guide us through our challenges. When the government says we have to invest in mega projectsincluding Kau Yi Chau artificial islands, we need guarantees that employees can actually see what is expected.
Some of the praise he showered Si with the Hong Kong government during Lee’s visit included how he “dares to take on responsibilities” and “executes tasks with excellence.” Meanwhile, the government seems to be struggling with day-to-day tasks. New Year’s Eve is a huge manifestation of this.

Officials talk about the city’s role as a superconnector, Shenzhen-Hong Kong integration and being an integral part of the Greater Bay Area. Yet somehow an hour-long journey for some turned into an overnight stay on the train station floor.

Fireworks on New Year’s Eve lit up Victoria Harbour. Photo: Elson Lee

Officials promised to do better. Whenever we see the Chief Secretary stepping up and heading up a coordination task force, we know that the government is identifying the current problem as an inter-agency issue. This could be it. This may explain why the tasks are not running.

But if we want to really improve city administration, there needs to be reform at the most basic level. Something as simple as opening borders is an administrative matter. Whether we need to cut red tape or fix any process that hinders coordination between bureaus and departments, that’s what the government needs to focus on.

Hong Kong has the unwavering support of the central government. But our future depends on how our leaders implement these plans, without unnecessary administrative hiccups.

Alice Wu is a policy consultant and former associate director of the Asia-Pacific Media Network at UCLA

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