Leung's policy address hits the mark, but the big challenge lies ahead
Joseph Cheng says the policy directions laid out by Leung will not gain traction without support from Legco and the public, and that is currently in short supply in our fractious society
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's first policy address was a crucial moment for his administration, which didn't have the benefit of a "honeymoon" period as a result of the scandals that have plagued its first six months. Leung certainly hopes that this will convince the community to give him a chance to do a good job.
His most significant asset is that the government has ample financial resources to implement policy reforms. If Hong Kong people support the proposals, as is the case for 15 years of free education, few critics can say that the community cannot afford them.
During his election campaign, Leung's obvious edge over his main rival Henry Tang Ying-yen was his reformist orientation; and, at the current stage of Hong Kong's development, people want to see serious reform to enhance the economy's international competitiveness and improve social services so as to raise their living standards.
Doubts about his integrity remain Leung's major liability. His popularity hit a new low just before the policy address, and his illegal construction scandals have not been settled. A substantial segment of the pro-democracy movement is now asking for him to step down. Yet, with the backing of the Chinese authorities, this is quite inconceivable, at least in the coming two years or so, because of Beijing's concern for the special administrative region's political stability, its unwillingness to lose face since the chief executive was appointed by Chinese leaders, and the absence of a "Plan B" for the time being.
In view of the high expectations on the part of the people and the administration itself, it was always going to be difficult for Leung to score high marks for his policy address.
It had to be comprehensive, because people want to see a policy blueprint for the next five, if not 10, years; and it had to deliver a long-term vision as well as effective short-term measures. Given all the circumstances, the administration cannot claim to have carried out adequate consultation; and it can easily be criticised for what has been left unsaid.
On the other hand, the chief executive managed to offer a good analysis of Hong Kong's deep-seated socio-economic problems and satisfactory broad policy directions to tackle these issues. This is an improvement over the complacency and inaction of the Donald Tsang Yam-kuen administration. But such insights do not translate to immediate, visible benefit to Hong Kong people. Hence the policy address is unlikely to do much to raise Leung's popularity.
Take the example of housing. Leung promised to increase land supply as well as that of public housing and home-ownership flats, and set out the policy measures to achieve them. He was careful to offer some short-term relief measures, which are not new; and is ready to blame his predecessor for existing inadequacies. Yet it is clear that housing supply will not increase significantly in the next two years.
Leung can, however, rely on the likes of the Long Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee, the soon-to-be established Economic Development Commission, and the Commission on Poverty to come up with more proposals in various important policy areas down the road.
In short, he has the advantage of occupying the floor and holding the initiative. The budget will be announced in the coming month, and this time the financial secretary will be able to distribute "sweeteners" as usual.
Since Leung has indicated that he intends to maintain a balanced budget and apparently is not prepared to use the city's fiscal reserves to enhance its economic competitiveness or welfare benefits for the community, the disposable resources at hand for the government and what it can do become much more limited.
The enhanced subsidy offered to replace old, polluting diesel commercial vehicles reveals the style of the Leung administration. There is no consultation, which is necessary if we are to have a comprehensive long-term policy for environmental protection. Moreover, while big businesses may also benefit, small businesses in general feel they have been adversely affected.
Is the community willing to give him a chance to deliver these reforms? In view of the increasing number of confrontations in the Legislative Council, it will be difficult for the administration to efficiently steer many measures through the council. Arriving at a consensus at the community level won't be easy, either. Basically, the administration has to maintain solidarity within the establishment; and when it encounters challenges, it will be tempted to seek the help of Beijing and the central government's liaison office.
The administration, and in fact the people of Hong Kong, need a favourable political environment to be able to focus on the many policy proposals outlined in the policy address. Yet, there are likely to be many confrontations that divert attention in the coming months, given the administration's recent request to Hong Kong's top court to consider asking the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress to interpret the Basic Law - and the upcoming political reform discussions in anticipation of the 2017 chief executive election and the 2016 and 2020 Legco elections.
Leung may have passed the policy address test, but the really tough challenges are still to come.
Joseph Cheng Yu-shek is a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong