Hong Kong plods along, with or without Leung at the helm

Philip Bowring says the chief executive’s swansong policy address reinforces the sense that Hong Kong has fallen behind rival cities in the past five years, though his failing as a leader is but one reason for the city’s painfully slow progress

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 January, 2017, 10:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 2017, 3:14am

It is time to feel some sympathy for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Five years ago, I wrote that he was a better candidate than Henry Tang Ying-yen, even before Tang was impaled on his illegal structure. Leung, judging from his manifesto, held out more prospect of change than the son of a textile magnate known for his wine-tasting skills.

Reading Leung’s last policy address, one is struck not so much by his sense of achievement, nor even the long list of programmes he would have put in place had he been allowed a second term. It is the realisation that little has been achieved despite many good intentions and buoyant revenues. For that, one can partly blame his own personality, neither a politician who could engage the public nor a networker who could both make friends and twist arms to get things done. Some blame can rest with a fractious legislature, with the vested interests of functional legislators adding to obstruction by the filibustering pan-democrats.

Watch: Leung Chun-ying says he has fulfilled his election promises

Some hits, many misses during CY Leung’s tenure

But, as big a problem as all these combined has been a bureaucracy putting off decisions and unwilling to present the chief executive with options that challenge entrenched interests. Yet the two main players in this slothful system are now the only two serious candidates to succeed.

Instead of a rousing farewell or a heartfelt vision for the future, the best he could do was make a long list of mostly modest advances under his watch

Leung’s last address was curiously bloodless. It was as though he felt that he had been let down by those (in Beijing) whom he had most tried to please. They had dropped him because his devotion to “one country”, his tough stance against localists, had so alienated Hongkongers that he had become dispensable. Instead of a rousing farewell or a heartfelt vision for the future, the best he could do was make a long list of mostly modest advances in housing, health and transport under his watch. It did not address deep discontent but was at least unprovocative.

Failure to keep housing prices down has been largely a result of cheap global money and the legacy of Leung’s predecessor. The public housing programme is now significant again. Leung deserves commendation for that. Nonetheless, we are now told that we must think “out of the box” and consider using country park land. This is shorthand for declining to take on either the Heung Yee Kuk or the major corporate landowners. Leung should have known better than to again mouth promises of “stringent enforcement action against illegal use” of brownfield and agricultural land. How often did Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor promise that, whether as chief secretary or secretary for development?

The Mandatory Provident Fund offset issue is barely any closer to resolution than five years ago, with Leung’s promise then now to be delivered gradually. Indeed, gradualism reigns everywhere, the need for consensus being a cover for indecision. Can’t anyone cut this Gordian knot?

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Though the lowest paid have done better than most income categories, their real income rising 5.2 per cent in four years, tax system changes have mostly benefited the top third of earners. The condition of the old and poor remains a disgrace.

As evidenced by Leung’s address, the bureaucracy remains fixated on handing out parcels of land to supposed technology ventures, real or imagined. After Cyberport and the Science Park, it is the Lok Ma Chau loop.

Subsidies for start-ups are promised. But, when it comes to areas where the government can play an immediate role in bringing technology to work, it does little. Thirty years after the taxi lobby forced the government to abandon electronic road pricing, Leung now tells us of “an in-depth feasibility study” on a pilot scheme. After years of discussion on tunnel toll differentials, the government is “studying overall strategy for the rationalisation of traffic distribution” among the three tunnels.

There has been progress on air and water quality, but Hong Kong’s efforts are still minimal. Waste disposal remains in the dark ages. Instead of progress to a smarter city, we are offered a pilot project for “leveraging people-centric information and communications technology solutions for the sharing of data to improve the use of resources and enhance the management of pedestrian and vehicular traffic flows”. Big road projects are planned while urban railway building suffers because of the cost of the high-speed line.

Full speed ahead for Hong Kong on the ‘one road’ strategy

The Belt and Road Office is to be enlarged. Whoopee. Now we have a visa-free deal and a tax treaty with Belarus, almost the poorest economy in Europe, whose one thing in common with Hong Kong is a really low fertility rate. Meanwhile, visa restrictions limit visitors from large Asian nations.

At the macroeconomic level, Hong Kong remains reasonably successful, thanks to its traditional attractions to mainland and foreign businessmen. But, across the political spectrum, there is sense that Hong Kong has fallen behind its peers in a great many ways, whether Sydney, Seoul, Singapore, Taipei or even old London. Maybe this is partly a product of an ageing society. Yet equally ageing societies elsewhere have been far quicker to adapt – despite multi-party democratic systems. Perhaps their secret is that they don’t have conglomerates with the money and influence of ours, and have bureaucrats who are more aware of the world and public expectations.

How do Lam and John Tsang Chun-wah propose to address that?

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator