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And the Winner is...

Cover Story
Making Cities Work
What Makes Good Governance?

Asia's Best Cities
The Top Ten
The Complete Rankings

The Rankings Explained

Hong Kong vs. Singapore
The Competition Heats Up
A Comparison
Different Lifestyles

A devil of a job in the City of Angels

Hong Kong
History Lessons

overall rank: 7

country: China

population: 6,617,000

snapshot: The City at a Glance

For a while, Hong Kong looked like the city that couldn't do anything right. From the nightmare slaughter of 1.4 million chickens due to a virus scare at the new year to the chaotic opening of the new international airport in July, the government looked uncoordinated and inept. Worries about food hygiene in particular hit home. After the "bird flu" claimed six lives late last year, the government - following weeks of dithering - decided on a mass cull. It was supposed to be over in 24 hours. In the end it took four days. Add to that recurrent episodes of cholera, pesticide poisoning and other unappetizing dishes. "The fact that there is no central body to handle food safety indicates negligence on the part of the government," says Mei Ng, director of environmental group Friends of the Earth. "Worse still, there is a total lack of interdepartmental coordination."

Hong Kong's government is a curious amalgam. Three tiers of elected or semi-elected bodies - the legislature, two municipal councils and 18 district boards - oversee policy in the tiny territory. But policy is drawn up and executed by the bureaucracy, and unelected officials act as government ministers. Critics say overlapping roles and confusing lines of decision-making and implementation have resulted in a flat-footed government. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's solution is to abolish the municipal councils, which manage daily-life issues such as street cleaning, food safety as well as such public facilities as markets, museums and parks. Their responsibilities are to be parceled out to other existing departments as well as a new department of food and environmental hygiene.

The plans prompted howls of protest. Many legislators say the government wants to centralize power and eliminate a key rung for up-and-coming politicians. But as rising indignation over aggravations like food safety and air pollution show, the public wants government to do a better job.

Council member Ada Wong Ying-kay admits that Hong Kong's municipal administration needs improvement. "The current structure is inefficient because the old administration did not think municipal works were important," she says. "Instead of overseeing the works itself, it delegated the responsibilities to the municipal councils." Of course Hong Kong's urban services are hardly a disaster area. "I think our city governance is good. In Asia, we probably rank only after Japan and Singapore," says professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek of City University. "Our traffic is good, it's a safe city, very efficient, English speaking, easy for foreign visitors to get around." But the municipal councils are an historical legacy that has become unreasonable, he says. Whether their demise will lead to a better, cleaner Hong Kong remains to be seen.

- By Law Siu-lan

Snapshot: The City at a glance

City AverageRank
Overall Score65527
Average Income US$16,5218,7635
State Educational Spending Per Cap/$857.10200.221
a Ratio of House Price to Income11.32420
Hospital Beds per 1,0004.65615
Dust/Suspended Particles(ug/m3)89240.7315
Vehicles per KM City Roads273.1224.6228
Criminal Cases per 10,000103.68131
TV Sets per 1,000333.3241.698

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a = Average house price divided by average annual income.
b = Household income.
c = Based on household income.
d = Officially, land cannot be bought or sold.
e = National figure.
f = U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Pollutants Standards Index.
g = Air Pollutant Index.
h = Per 100 families
i = Per 1,000 families
j = Per 75,000 people.
k = National figure, TV sets per 1,000 people.
m = % of households with TV sets.
n = Measured in Parts per Million (ppm).
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