SCMP Monday, October 9, 2000


Tung's hi-tech drive veers off course


In mid-March, the Growth Enterprise Market index for hi-tech stocks was pushing 1,000 points. It closed at 386.98 on Friday.
Tung Chee-hwa's drive to make Hong Kong a technological hub, launched with government subsidies in his 1998 Policy Address, helped feed the former dotcom frenzy. Now that the bubble has burst, many investors and technologists are disillusioned, although some may see what has happened as a necessary filtering out of the weak and unworthy.
It appears the Chief Executive's hi-tech industrial policy is in danger of sharing the same fate as his housing policy. His target of providing 85,000 new flats a year was blamed for contributing to the property slump and had to be abandoned in one of his most embarrassing policy U-turns.
The Government is facing a short-term deficit of $32.2 billion and, with his sliding popularity to contend with, Mr Tung may be too distracted to worry about his hi-tech dream now.
In his Wednesday address, he will probably point to a few token initiatives and achievements in technology, such as the Digital 21 blueprint to promote e-commerce and online government services.
There also is the showcase Cyber-Port project, with the first phase scheduled to be ready next year.
Mr Tung is right to argue that government policy plays a crucial role in promoting hi-tech development, even in a free market. The rise of hi-tech industries in Japan, the United States and Taiwan testify to that. The question is: Does he have the will to stay the course, or even expand financial support to stimulate innovation, research and investment?us100
''In the early stages of technological development, governments really need to take the lead in investing in R&D and in human resources,'' said University of Science and Technology associate vice-president (research and development) Professor Anthony Eastham.
''Only down the road maybe in 10 years does the industry take over the leadership. The Government is in a cutback mode in university research funding.''us100
Mr Tung has made much of the $5 billion technology fund for scientists and entrepreneurs but, as outgoing University of Science and Technology president Professor Woo Chia-wei has said, that is roughly equivalent to the sum Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spend in one year.
Hong Kong spends less than 0.3 per cent of gross domestic product on research and development each year, according to Professor Eastham. By comparison, the US, Germany, Sweden, Finland and Japan all spend above 2.5 per cent of GDP. chief executive Allan Cheung Chi-wan said: ''This is a new age. The Government needs to be doing a little bit of hand-holding, especially in the early stage of educating citizens and companies.''
But government support must mean more than just e-commerce and telecommunication there must be greater support for basic science as well, said Professor Eastham.
In his previous policy addresses, Mr Tung has mentioned the US and Israel, even the mainland, as hi-tech examples to emulate. But, for political reasons, he could never mention one ''country'' with many similar characteristics and business incentives to offer the SAR help.
Taiwan rose from a rural backwater to become a global electronics giant. A concerted industrial policy by the Kuomintang government over three decades created this technological powerhouse.
Its Hsinchu science park, home to many top hi-tech firms on the island, accounts for more than six per cent of GDP and nine per cent of total trade, according to the science journal Nature. Hong Kong's own science park is still under construction, but it would be politically incorrect to follow Hsinchu as an example for someone like Mr Tung.