Donald Tsang

Misplaced care

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 October, 2010, 12:00am

The one big new idea in the policy address is a HK$10 billion insult to Hongkongers and, in particular, those now classified as poor. They do not need charity handouts as envisaged by the Community Care Fund. They want well-defined tax and spending systems, and policies that help reduce the income gap, get old people out of cage homes, and so on, not arbitrary one-off payments by some yet-to-be-named officials. Most of all, they don't want charity from the very property and monopoly tycoons who, thanks to official connivance, have been able to extract outrageous profits from a public whose hard-earned savings have also been eroded by interest rates below the level of inflation.

If the tycoon families - among whom we should probably now include New Territories feudal kingpin Lau Wong-fat - really want to contribute to charities, there are plenty to choose from run by selfless individuals. This proposed fund is typical of the paternalistic mindset of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and his inability to understand the proper role of government in a modern society. Contributions to it will probably buy tycoons even greater influence than they have already.

Nor is there any indication of how quickly this money might be distributed. The government has various funds which sit unused. It is, anyway, small change compared with the HK$50 billion a year that Tsang boasted is being spent on mega infrastructure, the biggest of which are driven by politics and special interests, not by their economic viability or social value.

That is not to say there are no measures in the speech to address poverty issues. Increased schoolbook allowances and transport subsidies for employees are small steps in the right direction. So, too, is increasing care provision for old people, particularly those with dementia. But apparent, too, is the hope that more old people will elect to move to the mainland - that is, getting rid of them in the guise of 'regional integration'.

There is talk of family values and problems of a rapidly ageing population, but nothing about actual measures which would enable families to have more children - like day-care centres, job protection for nursing mothers and other measures that have proved effective elsewhere.

Yet again on the housing front, the government is offering measures it could and should have taken at any time, such as rezoning more industrial land and auctioning land, in addition to what is released under the cumbersome application list scheme.

A promise of new public rental housing of 15,000 flats a year is welcome but a new rent/purchase scheme for the so-called sandwich class through the Housing Society looks interesting until you read the numbers - a total of 5,000 flats, with the first 1,000 not to be delivered until 2014. The core of the property price issues remains. Although the government controls land supply, can impose development guidelines on flat size and can influence bank mortgage credit, it still likes to imagine that its intervention in the property market is minimal.

Tsang even says that 'challenges in land development' have held back residential land supply. This is a quite extraordinary claim - unless, of course, he is referring to the government's continued failure, thanks to its alliance with Lau and others, to address New Territories land-use issues and the so-called rights of so-called indigenous families. That issue remains conspicuous by its absence.

On critical environmental issues, Tsang continues to follow the approach of not doing anything today if you can put it off until tomorrow. Thus, cleaning up bus emissions must largely wait for the expiry of franchises. Why? His broader references to emissions are in the context of climate change, not of their direct connection to the health of Hong Kong people and current and future costs in health care.

He spoke at length about increasing links with the mainland, including school exchanges. But there is nothing about encouraging links with Asian neighbours, whether at the social or business level. The stock exchange is at last getting serious about non-mainland listings. Tsang mentioned Islamic finance, but where are the legal and regulatory moves, promised two years ago, needed to attract it?

Meanwhile, a government which claims to keep its hands off business is to expand the Mortgage Corporation remit to lending to small and medium-sized enterprises. Is this because banks are sometimes unwilling to lend? If so, they must have very good reason at this time of excess liquidity. Or is it because the Monetary Authority wants to use its unmonitored access to public funds to create more high-paying jobs for officials?

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator