Lack of civic nutrition in a budget full of 'candy'
For three years now, observers have talked about Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah's taste for dishing out 'candies' - small favours available to all - in his annual budgets. To be fair, this has been the practice ever since the handover, when Hong Kong was hit by the Asian financial crisis and the subsequent 68 months of deflation. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen used this measure when he was financial secretary, as did his successor, Antony Leung Kam-chung, to some extent.
So much so that it has become an addiction: people tend to expect it around this time of year and politicians get to claim the credit. The government looks good, politicians look good, most people benefit one way or another - it looks like a win-win situation.
John Tsang's candy-sprinkled new budget was a good performance, well received by the general public according to recent polls. Coming from a lame-duck government nearing the end of its term, what else could we expect? Certainly, we couldn't ask him to make any bold moves or long-term commitments.
Candies are, by definition, only sweeteners: they are not nutritious and cannot satisfy hunger. So where do we get the necessary resources to tackle our real problems?
The crux of the matter is that even Premier Wen Jiabao , more than 1,000 kilometres away in Beijing, is aware that there are many deep-seated problems in Hong Kong crying out to be tackled. Some are waiting to explode soon - maybe even before the next chief executive takes over in July 2012. Though Donald Tsang insists that he no longer follows the philosophy of 'positive non-intervention', he is still a firm believer in small government, which is more or less the same thing.
He thinks most issues can be solved through market mechanisms and that the government should take on only the few issues that cannot be resolved by the market.
Disciples of this school of thought share the habit of making no changes in the pattern of recurrent expenditures in the budget.
As a one-shot deal, our financial secretaries can spend tens of millions on a single item without even raising an eyebrow but, when it comes to repeated spending, they are extremely miserly.
A typical example is the small amount of monthly pocket money paid to our senior citizens. The government is reluctant to increase it, although such a measure need not cost much.
When it comes to financing health care, for example, it prefers to set aside a large amount of money - to the tune of HK$50 billion. Yet it will not consider any pay-as-you-go programme that would require continuous government commitment.
This attitude is even more conservative than that of the colonial government, which governed in a borrowed place and on borrowed time.
A glaring example is housing policy. The colonial government recognised it had a responsibility to provide decent housing for the masses. But the current administration abstains from the issue and has let the property tycoons take over the whole playing field. Its only concern is the annual income per hectare it gets from land sales.
The amount of land sold in recent years is only a small fraction of that sold during the period of transition to the handover, when the limit was 20 hectares per year.
That mild restriction led to the great property bubble of 1997. Can you imagine the grave ramifications we are going to face not too far down the road as the result of the current, prolonged period of practically zero supply?
The time bomb is ticking, irrespective of some mild reversals in land policy in the budget. Chances are that it may explode before 2012, when some angry mob will shout: 'We don't want your candies.'
Lau Nai-keung is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, and a member of the Commission on Strategic Development