Waste levy chaos make perfect mess

First floated by the Tung Chee-hwa administration, a long-delayed waste-charging scheme scheduled to kick off in August seems to be going nowhere, if not the rubbish bin.

A political campaign mounted by major pro-establishment forces with apparent backing from the John Lee administration, which is seemingly aimed to kill the scheme after an ongoing test run ends in a couple of months, has scored an early success.

It has succeeded in dampening expectations that the levy scheme will be formally implemented across the city on August 1 as announced early this year.

Sharp turnaround

This is not so much because the public are against the levy. There is no statistical proof of it.

It cannot possibly be the case as the issue of charging municipal solid waste has been put on the agenda of the administration since Tung. It was passed into law by the loyalists-dominated legislature in mid-2021.

When John Lee took the helm in July 2022, he gave no sign of a change of mind of the plan to introduce a levy on waste to help reduce waste in the long-run.

He was non-committal, however, on Tuesday last week when he was asked by reporters about what the waste-charging scheme was up to. Lee reiterated that officials are taking a wait-and-see approach based on results of the trial run, which began on April 1.

His response has been interpreted rightly as a sign of a government rethink of the scheme. Although results of the trial run are not yet available, it is not difficult to predict. Importantly, it is also easy to play around the findings of the trial run to fit into the game plan of the authorities and lead to the conclusion the Government would like to reach.

The writing is on the wall.

Regardless of John Lee’s endgame, if any at this stage, the half-hearted and ambivalent attitude of his team with the environment minister Tse Chin-wan fighting alone has effectively let the opponents lead the game.

Bashing against the scheme

That is not just ridiculous, but scandalous. Worse, the bashing against the scheme looks increasingly dirty and ugly.

First came the salvo by a long-time patriotic businessman Lo Man-tuen, whose views in his Ming Pao column have often been associated with those of the central government’s Liaison Office. Lo blamed “radical opposition forces” for spearheading the waste levy.

Then came the attacks made by anonymous government officials, pro-establishment figures and writers against former environment minister Wong Kam-sing for his failure to make good preparations for the implementation of the scheme.

Wong stood down when Lee was sworn in. Tse, who formerly headed the environment protection department, was promoted by Lee to become the minister.

Tse and his former departmental team are supposed to have been working on the details of the scheme for years and reported to his immediate head, Chief Secretary for Administration Chan Kwok-ki, regularly.

That the scheme has first been deferred, then postponed again with the addition of a trial run that involved a ridiculously small number of testing points, or 14, says tonnage of the chaos in the ruling echelon, at least for the waste-charging scheme.

The latest sharp turnaround of the long-delayed waste charging scheme has caused bewilderment to political pundits and public policy watchers.

Unpredictability of public policies

Christine Loh, former deputy environment minister, said at a radio programme last week she felt the Government faced “political pressure” for them to further defer or even suspend the scheme, but has no idea where it came from – and for what.

Starry Lee, Chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, said she fears implementation of the scheme as planned in August will breed chaos.

Her solution is not to find ways to avoid the chaos, but to trash the scheme, or defer it, to be accurate.

To “bite the bullet” has always been the slogan of political leaders around the world. Hong Kong’s former leaders such as Leung Chun-ying are no exception. It seems that the Lee team prefers letting the bullets fly.

With the pro-democracy force largely vanished, the Government no longer has an opposition in the Legislative Council and society at large. There has been no strong, massive opposition against the scheme. Nor it looks likely to emerge even if it is formally launched.

The dramatic twist of the scheme appears to have given a glimpse of the growing unpredictability and uncertainties of public policies in the new age.

( Photo : Environment and Ecology Bureau facebook )

▌[At Large] About the Author

Chris Yeung is a veteran journalist, a founder and chief writer of the now-disbanded CitizenNews; he now runs a daily news commentary channel on Youtube. He had formerly worked with the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Economic Journal.