Tell us where we're going wrong - generalities just won't cut it

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 March, 2011, 12:00am

Hong Kong should use its ample reserves and public revenues to strengthen the social safety net and take better care of the poor and vulnerable, Premier Wen Jiabao said yesterday.

SCMP, March 15

Do I hear the pot calling the kettle black here? I ask because of what the chart below tells me about the income of rural relative to urban households in China over the last 25 years.

The figures say that in 1985 the average per capita income of rural households was 73 per cent of that of urban households. The latest figure has fallen to only 38 per cent, barely half as much.

Those figures come directly from the regular household surveys conducted by two departments of the National Bureau of Statistics and they constitute no small exercise. The surveys cover more than 130,000 households.

I admit that expressing these survey results as relative percentages hides the fact that both urban and rural incomes have grown dramatically over this space of time. China's rural population, however, is still greater than its urban population and the figures leave no room for doubt that income disparity between the two has widened to gulf-like proportions.

Unfortunately, the efforts of a long morning's work to make some comparison with income disparity in Hong Kong were in vain. I would have had to stretch the figures too far. But while income disparity has certainly grown wider in Hong Kong as well, I strongly doubt that it has done so to the extent seen in the mainland.

And if Premier Wen thinks that Hong Kong's foreign reserves of US$290 billion are ample to strengthen our social safety net, to what better care of the mainland's poor might he devote some of the mainland's US$2.8 trillion in foreign reserves?

All of which suggests that he would have done better to address his exhortations to the mainland public officials over whom he has direct authority rather than make these comments to Hong Kong counterparts whom he has promised a high degree of autonomy.

Of course, he may not have given them quite that degree of autonomy anyway. I would like, for instance, to see our financial secretary, John Tsang Chun-wah, assure us that it was truly his own idea to backtrack on budget proposals and pay each Hong Kong ID card holder HK$6,000 in cash rather than put it in employee pension funds.

Methinks I see the hand of Beijing here. It is very often at work in what Beijing regards as 'grass-roots' matters in Hong Kong. And, if so, isn't Premier Wen just lecturing himself? It's better done in front of a mirror than a microphone, in that case.

But, more to the point, what alternative proposals does he have for strengthening our social net and taking better care of the poor? His comments were made at the end of a National People's Congress plenary that adopted a virtual word for word copy of our own Donald's last policy address as Hong Kong's contribution to the latest five-year plan.

It hardly becomes the premier of China to adopt that statement without a word of protest one day and then undermine it the next day by casting aspersions on the social conscience of its author.

Make no mistake. His comments do just that. They strongly imply that our present administration has been remiss in its care of Hong Kong's poor and vulnerable and they leave no doubt that the master is dissatisfied.

Now, I have never been the biggest fan of our bureaucrats but I know how they tremble at the prospect of getting it wrong on a 'grass-roots' question in which Beijing takes an interest. Tell them, Mr Wen, just how you would like them to do it the right way and they will jump to your command.

But it's not quite fair, Sir, to tell them that they have not been up to the mark and then not tell them in what way you think they have failed. Should we have built more public housing, raised fruit money allowances even further or granted even bigger wage subsidies? If you wish to intervene directly in Hong Kong affairs we will need particulars. Generalities don't cut it at this level.

In fact generalities are worse than saying nothing at all. They might suggest, Sir, that you really have no specific remedies of your own to offer, in which case you would have done better to have said nothing after adopting the ones Donald offered.

Pots really are as black as kettles sometimes, you know.