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Hong Kong government tech strategy lacks policy goals and imagination

When a government body uses the same tactics for promoting pottery at a trade fair to jump start Hong Kong’s moribund or non-existent technology sector it is sure to yield ridicule. But our government officials don’t know any other way to approach something as hard to grasp and elusive as creating technology or new ideas.

The Hong Kong Free Press did the local technology sector a favour by reporting on some of the serious shortcomings in the way the government has mishandled awards competition for Hong Kong start-ups. Leaving aside that awards have little to do with commercial or innovative success, the “Hong Kong Best ICT Awards” have sparked accusations of an unreliable screening process that rewards candidates that may not qualify for the awards.

Winners of this year’s Hong Kong Best ICT Awards were forced to defend themselves against accusations of copying other products. The competition is riddled by “systemic failure” according to Legco IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok. He says that the committee responsible for the awards failed perform sufficient checks on the eligibility of applicants.

Trying to simulate or stimulate the intellectual and entrepreneurial furtiveness of a few inspired entrepreneurs in a garage or basement somewhere in Palo Alto or the Homebrew Computer Club (which helped to spawn Microsoft and Apple, among others) is of course impossible.

But, the latest debacle courtesy of the Hong Kong Information Technology Joint Council is emblematic of a level of intellectual corruption that prevents the city’s economy from making any progress beyond the status quo that the pro-business establishment is anchored to.

The kind of people the government brings into the leadership role of its technology programmes reveals the source of the problem. The head organiser for the start-up portion of the awards was the Hong Kong Information Technology Joint Council, whose president is Duncan Chiu. Chiu is the son of the late Hong Kong entrepreneur Deacon Chiu.

It is questionable to call his father, Deacon Chiu an entrepreneur, unless you define it in the twisted Hong Kong sense where squeezing profits through a television license duopoly ATV qualifies as being innovative in any modern sense.

Too many government committees are headed by some scion of a tycoon who appears to be especially unqualified for the role of guiding entrepreneurs. Indeed, one wonders if there is a secret, dim sum-like menu of government appointments for the city’s elite to choose from.

The government should be drawing upon the entire start-up and venture capital community in Hong Kong. A diverse and experienced group of foreigners and locals is out there and willing to help. Many of them wonder what it takes to apply for those posts.

But, maybe economic transformation isn’t the real goal. Instead, the aim is promotional stunts to distract young people from the real problem – that the Hong Kong establishment has no plan or interest to move the economy away from a property cartel dominated serfdom.

It is a sad commentary when the establishment can’t even come up with talent. What exists are political bodies that are sclerotically rigid, media inaccessible, authoritarian and peevish. There is no discernable policy goal or imagination – only the customary pursuit of extended incumbency.

Peter Guy is a financial writer and former international banker