Ceding role to the market fuels injustice
In effectively his last policy address, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen set aside a large amount of one-off money for measures to dampen rising social discontent. Using his favourite metaphor, he is dishing out cookies instead of candies now. He is entitled to do this, as a farewell gift.
However, his efforts are probably too little, too late. Following a neo-liberal philosophy of minimising the role of government that has proved disastrous elsewhere, the Tsang administration is on the whole moving away from its commitments not only in housing but across the board in education, health and transport. Sticking to this policy will lead Hong Kong towards more unrest.
It is no secret that many people want subsidised housing. Under the rent-to-buy scheme, a handful of lower-middle-class people may benefit, but only four years down the road, and the same is true of most of Tsang's other measures. In the meantime, property prices will remain well beyond the reach of most people, who will remain frustrated and angry.
The crux of the matter is the availability of affordable housing for the general public. It should not be about pleasing a small portion of the middle class with some preferential treatment to shut them up. The overall result will be more social instability, not less.
There is only one way to solve the problem, and that is treating housing as a necessity like education, health and transport. As such, it cannot be left to the market, and the government has to play a bigger and more decisive role. So far the government is not pursuing that proactive role.
The government wants to develop the education industry. Quality education is now a privilege of those who can afford it. It widens the knowledge divide and lowers the social mobility of the have-nots. Providing 2,500 more undergraduate places in 2012 may create more problems than it solves.
In health services, the government plans to sell the idea of the failed American-style medical insurance instead of improving on the much more cost-effective British public health system, which it inherited. In the end, quality medical care will only be available to the rich, and private hospitals, clinics and doctors will get richer while the sick and poor are left to rot.
Every mode of transport is now privatised and getting more expensive by the day. Poor people living in dormitory towns such as Tin Shui Wai, Ma On Shan and Tung Chung, where job opportunities are scarce, have little incentive to work for a pittance while a sizeable portion of their income has to be spent on commuting and eating out. Subsidies can only solve part of the problem, especially during a time when transport companies are lining up for fare rises.
Hong Kong has been going too far towards marketisation, and the result is social injustice everywhere, feeding ever rising discontent. We have to face this fundamental issue head-on but, at the moment, this administration is clearly paralysed.
Lau Nai-keung is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, and also a member of the Commission on Strategic Development