With Hong Kong on edge, John Tsang’s budget will be a high-wire act

Alice Wu says the financial secretary will have to show he cares as much about people’s livelihoods as he does about the fiscal reserves, in a speech that comes just two weeks after the Mong Kok riot

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 February, 2016, 8:30am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 February, 2016, 8:30am

The jury may still be out on the impact the Mong Kok riot will have on Hong Kong’s politics, but we may get an indication in just two days – when Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah is scheduled to deliver his 2016-17 budget.

READ MORE: Full coverage of the Mong Kok riot

Budgets, like policy addresses, have become politically agitating affairs. Though billed as the main attraction, this scripted and polished event has, over the years, been repeatedly overshadowed by the sideshows inside and outside the Legislative Council. And we should expect the same to happen on Wednesday. The question is whether we should expect more.

There are certainly reasons for more people to want to push themselves into the limelight. The Legco by-election for New Territories East, to be held four days after the budget, is one of them. Surely, we’ll see candidates squeezing all the mileage they can out of it. If fishballs can get one of the candidates and his supporters that fired up, just imagine what actual dollar figures can do. According to him, what unravelled in Mong Kok was about “people just want[ing] to treat themselves to some fishballs”. Imagine the feast he could make of the budget.

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With student activist group Scholarism having recently confirmed that it will form a political party and field at least two candidates in the Legco election in September, we should be prepared for these young aspiring lawmakers to make their mark, too.

As people and groups tally up the “haves” and “have-nots” of Tsang’s budget sweeteners, we can be sure that public frustrations will be exploited on the annual “what’s in it for me” day. Add this to the traditional political parties vying for a share of the same political pie and there’s no telling what might happen.

So, in short, Tsang is going to be walking into a field full of political landmines. No amount of sweeteners and handouts can save him. This year, especially, as the government is expected to still have a fiscal surplus despite the economic downturn, offering zero concessions would be political suicide. Waiving fees and charges for businesses affected by the economy without doing the same for the masses is just not viable.

Given the focus on “One Belt, One Road” in the policy address, there will be no avoiding more mention of it in the budget. And it will undoubtedly solicit the same response from the same critics. Tsang would do well to cover other initiatives, too, especially as he talked about the belt and road in his last budget. Innovation, education, housing and new development areas undoubtedly need investment but Tsang will have to deliver more words and money for measures aimed at helping the poor and the elderly.

If the economic prospects look bleak for Hong Kong, ‘hoarding’ money will not go down well with the public

His challenge is the same as the chief executive’s – to get people to focus on the future as opposed to just the here and now. But with the reoccurring problems of the here and now – housing, poverty, the wealth gap – combined with an increasingly easily combustible political environment, Tsang must understand that the pains of the here and now make it hard for people to look far ahead. He must show he cares as much for people’s livelihoods as he does for the city’s fiscal reserves. For years, Tsang has been criticised – not only by politicians – for being overly prudent.

While our large fiscal reserves are the envy of many, they have also become a political obstacle. If the economic prospects look bleak for Hong Kong, “hoarding” money will not go down well with the public. Money can’t buy love or happiness but, right now, a lack of it may ignite political fires that can’t be easily put out.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA