John Tsang Chun-wah risks turning himself into an object of ridicule for his remarks over the middle class. With a monthly pay of HK$368,220 and numerous properties here and overseas, the finance chief hardly belongs to the middle class we know. He appears to have made things worse when he sought to defend himself amid simmering outrage over his post-budget statements. Referring to his favourite pastimes such as cinema and drinking tea, the US-educated minister argued that middle class is a matter of a lifestyle rather than how much one earns. He was, unsurprisingly, roundly criticised for losing touch with the public.
If Tsang thinks describing himself as middle class can win him sympathy, he is clearly mistaken. He is now under growing pressure to retract his statement and apologise for the gaffe. More worrying is whether it reflects the mindset of the government. If Tsang truly believes he is no different from anyone in the middle class, there is little wonder why his counterparts complain they do not get much from his budget. Unlike the finance chief, who earns HK$4.4 million a year and lives in a luxurious official residence, many in the middle-income bracket are struggling to pay off their property mortgages. One caller in a radio phone-in programme rightly questioned whether the government needs to lift the entire society out of poverty if Tsang is deemed middle class.
Governments around the world can ill-afford ignoring the needs of the middle class. They hold the key to social stability and sustainable development. The strong reaction over the past two days underlines people's discontent accumulated over the years. They do not wield strong political influence like the rich and powerful; nor do they get handouts or subsidised housing like the underprivileged. Yet this silent majority is too often neglected by government. When they turned to the budget for some relief, they were told a small tax rebate and a rate waiver would be sufficient. It is not difficult to see why public satisfaction with his first budget after reappointment has plunged eight points to 30 per cent.
It takes more than watching movies or drinking tea to feel the heat of the middle class. The finance chief is not being urged to provide more handouts. But if he is as understanding as he claims to be, he could have done more to help. Instead of giving direct subsidies, the middle class expect better education and health care, less pollution and effective governance. A good living environment to pursue their goals is what they want.
"Why middle class benefits little from budget relief", Video by Hedy Bok