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Chief executive’s policy address 2017

From milk powder to tear gas: seven highs, lows and unfulfilled promises of Leung Chun-ying’s term so far

Chief executive expected to revisit election promises in final policy address, but some pledges look likely to remain on drawing board

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 January, 2017, 8:50am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 January, 2017, 11:30am

In his swansong policy address on Wednesday, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is expected to revisit some of the promises he made at the start of his tenure, especially to the working poor and the elderly. But time is running out on Leung’s stay in Government House, and there have been failures that he won’t be able to reverse in his remaining six months.

Here’s a look at his three major policy successes, three letdowns and one area where it’s a mixed bag.

Successes

Early restrictions limit mainland competition for city’s mothers

Amid persistent shortages of canned baby milk formula early in Leung’s term, the chief executive in 2013 restricted the number of cans people could take out of Hong Kong. Back then, numerous parallel traders from mainland China caused supply problems for local mothers, buying the cans and taking them back over the border to resell.

The limit, of two cans per person, was a relief to the mothers in a panicked scramble for milk, as was the ban on non-local parents having babies in Hong Kong. Leung announced that ban in the same year, when the city was facing a shortage of hospital beds in both public and private hospitals. The move cut the number of babies born to non-local parents from more than 35,000 per year in 2013 to about 800 per year.

MPF change a boon for workers, and a black eye for employers

After much wrangling, Leung is expected on Wednesday to honour his election promise to ditch the controversial Mandatory Provident Fund offsetting mechanism, which has allowed employers to use money they put into workers’ retirement funds to cover their severance and long-service payments. The business sector has angrily defended the mechanism.

But employers will not be left empty-handed if it is scrapped, because the government is expected to subsidise their adjustment to the new setup for ten years. The subsidy in the first year of the transitional period will be less than half the amount used for offsetting, and progressively reduced over a decade.

The government will launch a consultation on the plan, and table legislation to amend the law if there is enough public support.

Housing: game of zones

Housing has been the No 1 issue on Leung’s agenda since he was elected in 2012. In his five-year term, he has outlined a long-term strategy to boost supply of private and public housing, but with mixed results.

At the end of 2016, the government announced it would maintain its target of adding 280,000 public flats and 180,000 private flats within a decade.

Hongkongers saw the first fruits of the government’s long-term strategy, as officials were able to identify more than enough land to meet the target for private flats.

But with public housing, the challenges of finding readily available land and vociferous opposition to rezoning have hampered the process. Last year, the government conceded that by 2027 it would most likely fall short of that target of 280,000 public flats, by about 44,000.

One major wrinkle in Leung’s housing legacy is his administration’s inability to keep his manifesto promise of a three-year wait for poor families to get into public housing. As of September, the average waiting time for poor applicants was 4.5 years.

Despite some progress, Hong Kong retained the dubious honour of being the least affordable city to live in, as many Hongkongers face mounting rents for tiny flats or squalid subdivided units.

Mixed bag

Anti-pollution action, but dolphins still threatened

Leung’s administration has slightly improved the city’s general air quality, having forced ocean-going ships to switch to cleaner fuel, and kicked into gear an initiative to replace thousands of heavily polluting diesel vehicles.

But it made less progress on waste. A long-awaited waste charging scheme is still to be legislated.

One of Environment Secretary Wong Kam-sing’s biggest feats was pushing the government’s incinerator and landfill extensions through the Legislative Council’s Finance Committee in 2014, increasing the city’s rubbish capacity.

On conservation, the government won plaudits by making a plan to phase out the local legal ivory trade by 2021. But Chinese white dolphins are being kicked out of their habitats because of major infrastructure projects, such as the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge.

On energy, the city’s new fuel mix has been set for 2020, and promises more use of relatively clean natural gas, but negotiations with the city’s two power companies on a new regulatory framework post-2018 will be left to the next administration. Leung’s 2012 manifesto also promised he would be “popularising renewable energy installations”, but there has been little progress on that.

Failures

No universal retirement protection

To the disappointment of welfare advocates and scholars, the administration decided to launch a means-tested retirement scheme instead of a universal one. The plan flew in the face of the results of a public consultation in which an overwhelming 90 per cent of respondents declared their support for a universal plan.

Under the universal scheme, every elderly Hong Kong person would receive HK$3,000 per month. The means-tested scheme, however, would see only people with assets of less than HK$80,000 receive such an allowance.

Following a public outcry over the abandonment of the universal scheme, the government is on Wednesday expected to raise the existing Old Age Living Allowance from HK$2,496 to HK$3,400 per month. People aged 65 or above and with assets of less than HK$140,000 will be eligible.

Still, critics have dismissed the concessionary measure. One of them was Labour Party lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, who labelled the stringent asset requirement “very mean” as many old people would have savings of more than HK$140,000 to pay for their own burial niches.

A half-hearted health insurance scheme

A plan to implement a government-subsidised voluntary health insurance scheme was seriously watered down due to opposition from insurers.

The scheme’s first phase allowed insurers to not cover high-risk patients or guarantee cover for anyone regardless of age or illness.

But Health Secretary Ko Wing-man promised to continue legislation work to back up the plan in the next phase. Legislation is highly unlikely in Leung’s remaining six months.

Critics slammed officials for bowing to pressure from insurers, and questioned whether the scheme would still serve the purpose of reducing the burden on the public health system by encouraging the middle class to switch to the private system.

Last, but not least, political reform failure and Occupy Central

Leung pledged to not only implement universal suffrage for the 2017 chief executive election, but to also reform the Legislative Council functional constituency so that the trade-based seats could be chosen by a broader electorate. Neither of those things happened.

Pan-democrats doubted whether Leung had tried his best to bargain with Beijing for Hongkongers’ interests. Beijing handed down a political reform package that did not offer universal suffrage, but insisted on prior nominations and restricting the race to a maximum of three pre-approved candidates. Leung failed to win the votes of the pan-democrats – the minority in the legislature.

The package sparked the 79-day Occupy protest, which thrust Hong Kong into the international spotlight, and Leung found himself in an awkward position when he ordered the firing of tear gas on protesters.

As if the debacle was not harmful enough, the reform package failed in the legislature, with 28 votes opposed to just eight in favour. The failed vote could be attributed to the botched walkout staged by pro-Beijing lawmakers, who were supposed to stay in their seats to vote in favour.

Leung’s tenure never quite recovered from the impact of the Occupy protests.