The invisible Hand of the Government

14 December 2010
Author: Jeannie Cho Lee


I’ve always loved philosophy and nearly became a philosophy major. My parents never overtly told me to change majors but my father often mumbled partly to himself and partly for my sake, “Why would you dwell on questions that have no answers? A useful life is about dealing with issues that do have answers.” So I changed from philosophy to political science but secretly never left philosophy since I focused on political philosophers and international relations. During my four years at undergraduate and two years at graduate school, I pondered about the role of government and how, when and in what form they should intervene in people’s lives. Fast forward nearly twenty years later and I am still observing and dwelling on how governments like Hong Kong intervene and more importantly, do not intervene, in an industry that is close to my heart– wine. What is remarkable about the Hong Kong government is not what it has done but what it hasn’t done: It has not intervened in the free trading of goods (in this case wine), it has not created restrictions on when and how alcohol can be consumed, it has not prohibited nor placed discouraging restrictions on how wine is advertised or marketed. It has not taken any initiatives to discourage wine consumption, moderate or otherwise. Compare this to some traditional wine consuming and producing markets like France — the situation is the opposite. The French government is extremely discouraging and restrictive on how wine is advertised and marketed. Is it a surprise then that wine consumption is on the decline in France? In both the United Kingdom and the United States, there are strong anti-alcohol groups that have pressured the government to take legislative action to restrict how and when wine can be consumed. Despite the end of prohibition in 1933, the United States still has numerous counties (for example those in Mississippi and Kansas) where selling, consuming and even the possession of alcohol is against the law. Where the Hong Kong government has intervened, it has done so by providing the platform in which the private sector can thrive. This is evident in their various efforts on different fronts: Building relationships with wine regions and countries with the signing of MOUs; signing agreements with the Chinese government to expedite the wine clearing process for Hong Kong-based companies; creating initiatives like the quality wine storage certification scheme; encouraging events like the recently held Hong Kong Trade Development Council’s (HKTDC) International Wine and Spirits Fair. Last week was a flurry of wine events emanating from the third annual HKTDC wine fair held November 4th to the 6th at the Hong Kong Convention Centre. The number of exhibitors rose from 525 in 2009 to over 700 this year and this annual event is quickly becoming a serious must-attend wine event for the region. Its inaugural fair in 2008 was hastily organized months after the wine duty was eliminated. The HKTDC settled on a date in August 2008 during most people’s summer holidays. Many local professionals, including myself, were skeptical about its future success. We already have Vinexpo, a biannual international wine trade fair that is well established and was recently held in Hong Kong for the fourth time this year in May. However, all signs suggest Hong Kong has room for two major wine fairs a year. It isn’t just the size and growth figures that are impressive, but the quality of speakers, exhibitors and attendees. From the Cathay Pacific International Wine and Spirits Competition, to the Wine Industry conference and the Sommelier Summit, the programs this year at the HKTDC wine fair were of a very high standard. We are fortunate to have a government that has the wisdom to know when not to intervene and when to take initiatives; we are also equally fortunate to have a growing pool of extremely capable wine industry professionals who can help to create a world-class wine fair.


Reprinted with permission from the South China Morning Post