Paul Zimmerman – Gweilo in the Council Pok Fu Lam District Councillor Gunning for Re-Election

[03/11/11] 

Paul Zimmerman shot to fame in 2010 when he won a bi-election for the Pok Fu Lam District Council, becoming the first elected foreigner in Hong Kong’s political history. On November 6 Paul will fight again for a seat in the District Council so we caught up with the unique politician to find out why he's so disappointed by Hong Kong's top leadership and what he's hoping to address.

 

 

What’s your view on the election?

It’s a contest. Somebody’s trying to win the seat away from me and although I’m confident we have to make sure the turnout is high. We need people to show up and say they’d like me to continue. The feedback I get from the community is very positive. I can see hesitation from people who didn’t vote for me last time but I think those who did vote for me last time will stick with me.


Politics aside, why should people vote for you?

I think people like the fact I never give up. There are many things that are difficult to achieve but they know I’ll never stop fighting to get things done, irrespective of bureaucracy.


What are you most proud of so far?

In the original plans for Kai Tak they wanted to build roads right next to the waterfront which was going to limit the waterfront’s enjoyment but thanks to our work the roads are going to be diverted away. That’s a massive change and was based on some analysis I’d seen of Sydney and other cities where roads are built behind properties as opposed to in front of them. That’s a concept that people hadn’t thought about here. To get those things changed took a long time but it’s been worth it.


What’s top of your agenda?

The top priority is to make sure Hong Kong rethinks its waterfront. We’ve got a thousand kilometers of waterfront but if you look at what we’ve got in terms of piers and marinas it’s extremely limited. Some of it’s down to conservation but there are plenty of viable options. Just go to Repulse Bay or Deepwater Bay and you’ll see dilapidated steps instead of a pier – there’s no infrastructure. In Europe if you have a small boat you stick it on a trailer and park it in you back yard but in Hong Kong nobody has a garden. In fact nobody has a trailer or a car so there’s nowhere to keep a little boat. Membership at the Marina Club costs half a million dollars as well as thousands of dollars per month in fees. Hong Kong has never provided public boat clubs so there’s a huge gap. 

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What’s the biggest institutional challenge you face?

The key institutional obstacle in Hong Kong is that when an issue isn’t entailed by the government’s mandate or there is no policy statement on it; no one deals with it. If there’s no policy statement on a certain topic – if no organization within the government owns it - it’s not going to be addressed. What’s more, if you ask around the government trying to find somebody to take responsibility, everybody says ‘ooh it’s not me’, and they send you off to the next chap.


What would you like to see instead?

We need real vision from the top leadership. Authority figures need to recognize problems and tell relevant organizations: ‘you should be responsible for handling this’. That’s what I call change management within government and it’s very limited in Hong Kong because our top leadership isn’t actually busy running the city. Instead they’re absorbed with external affairs such as dealing with Beijing and political reform. Our whole top leadership is too fixated with those issues.


Are you saying the leadership is abstracted from managing the city?

Yes, exactly - we don’t have a Boris Johnson or a Michael Bloomberg. If the buses aren’t working on a Monday morning in London or New York, those guys make a phone call to fix it. Our top leadership doesn’t do that. They leave those problems to lower levels in government so they lack engagement and vision for the city.


Does that stem from the way the Chief Executive is elected, i.e. the special interest from Beijing and consequent lack of independence as a leader?

Ultimately I think political reform is important. Having more democracy in the system would be helpful but I’m loath to admit that because I don’t want to wait for full democracy for these things to change. I want these things to change today. I don’t know why more politicians aren’t motivating people with a real vision for the city.


Do you see change on the horizon?

If it doesn’t change Hong Kong will suffer and I think it will change because politicians will increasingly have to motivate people. There will be more and more competition as the Chief Executive election nears full democracy so these guys will have to appeal to the public. And if you want to appeal to the public you need vision. You have to motivate people to come out to vote for you so I think as we become more democratic, we will go forward too.

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Is there anything that can be done to speed up the evolution?

That’s what we do - we provoke issues. For instance we provoked debate about public spaces in private development and revising licenses for street markets and hawkers. We constantly provoke debate and that inspires people. Once the topics are on the road people pick them up and run with them.


How effective have you’ve been?

Well, in regard to public open spaces, I can’t recall the date, but from November to January we organized two forums and by February it was on the radio. There was a discussion about Times Square and the whole thing exploded. In Hong Kong if you stir up an undercurrent then things can move very quickly. I must say the government does respond to public opinion but to move public opinion in the first place is difficult because professionals don’t debate in public. They debate quietly because they’re worried about their jobs. For instance if I was a professional architect I wouldn’t be able to inflame opinion because I’d be worried about my job. I’d have to leave Hong Kong. I’d have to take my kids and live in Singapore. It’s very different from upsetting people in somewhere like Birmingham in the UK where you could just get a new job in London but keep your family put. There’s no loss - but in Hong Kong it’s different. Professionals don’t speak up.


Do you think the media is critical enough of Beijing and does it do enough to confront political apathy?

There is enough healthy debate in the media but the media can only report on the debate that actually takes place. Of course, like almost every other country we have a healthy - maybe even an unhealthy appetite - for blood, sex and you know what so we have our fair share of media that’s not necessarily very helpful but there’s also good media and good open debate. Maybe the SCMP could do more but I think it’s still far better than the Hong Kong Standard.


What do you think of the Chief Executive election process?

It’s not democratic. It consists of a very small election committee and the people that stand in front of the election committee have already been pre-selected. It’s extremely limited – there’s little choice and from little choice you have little competition and that restricts the definition of ideas. What you want is people fighting for power, standing out there, trying to beat each other up with a better idea. That discussion becomes inspirational and people start finding solutions by debating issues. I always think you need a heated debate before you get a good solution.


Do you enjoy your political work?

Yes. I’ve left behind financial motivation so I have no financial reward for what I do. Being a councilor you get a stipend of about 20,000 dollars but I’m not in the red, I’m exactly on zero which is my target. As long as I don’t burn my cash my savings sustain me so that’s good. My reward is from successes - from going out in the street and making things better.


Your love of Hong Kong is striking

I’m not going to leave. This is my home - I will retire and die in the city. I think Hong Kong is the best city in the world. There is nowhere else you have the combination of New York and Hawaii for a thousand square kilometers. You’re at work one minute then 20 minutes later you’re on a sailing boat or on a beautiful beach. Plus I hate cold weather and that’s why I’m so keen to make sure we make the best of our assets.


How has your perception of Hong Kong politics changed since you’ve been in office?

Well my expectations weren’t high. I was fully aware it’s a hard slog because the bureaucracy has its own plan. They’re very focused on achieving their interests but it’s actually surprised me how much you can effect at the District Council. It’s more than you think.


Do your unique characteristics give you an advantage, particularly with the Anglophone press?

I could push my voice harder in the English language than I do now but my focus has been on the people I work with as well as the District Council. I work with a lot of District Councilors irrespective of their political background and the District Council is about getting things done in the district. We generally work with a common interest so there’s not that much political infighting. Of course it sometimes happens such as the battle between Pok Fu Lam and Tin Wan about who’d get the barging points and we lost but there are very few of those kinds of battles. I try to focus on getting things done by working with everybody irrespective of their political background.


So what’s been your biggest disappointment?

There are constant disappointments. You often don’t win and then you have to go out and start the battle all over again. Actually, the biggest disappointment is probably the Hong Kong to Macao bridge - there’s no rail line on it. We tried to poke up debate but we didn’t get anywhere. Those kinds of things. Or the express rail sticking out of the station in West Kowloon which is basically in the wrong location.

 


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Your favourites:
·    Actor? Hugh Laurie
·    Holiday? Scuba diving 
·    Drink? Sambuca on the rocks
·    Gadget? Well I only have one gadget which is the latest Blackberry, I don’t do a lot of gadgets

If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be and why?

My Dad because he passed away in 1992.

What’s the most important part of being a gentleman?

I think you’ve got to give people respect whoever they are.

What’s your favourite trip in Hong Kong?

I have lots of favourites but my current favourite is hiking along the ridge of Clearwater Bay Country Park right outside my house or down to the beach.

If you could take visitors to just one place in Hong Kong, where would it be?

I would take them hiking up the Dragon’s Back or in Clearwater Bay Country Park.

And what if they don’t like walking?

I they don’t like walking then they’re probably not going to be my friend!

If you could change anything about Hong Kong, aside from the pollution, what would it be?

I would reduce the pressure on the whole of the Island and the main Kowloon area, the core of Kowloon. I would make sure we focus on making Hong Kong a pedestrian city at street level. I want to give the streets back to pedestrians.

 


To see more of what Paul stands for check out his election site - www.vote4paul.hk

 

 


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