IT is always easier to pick on those who are in no position to fight back. And it is even easier when those involved have few friends and are held in low regard by society as a whole. That explains the ease with which the Government triumphed in its attack on welfare beneficiaries last week: slashing Comprehensive Social Security Assistance payments for many families and unveiling plans to force recipients to work for their benefits. Opinion polls swiftly revealed strong public backing for the move. This prompted politicians to be cautious in their criticism with even the Democratic Party not ruling out the need for welfare cuts, although it is unhappy with those now being proposed. The local press, which had been harshly critical of almost everything else the administration had done this year, was largely supportive on this occasion, with the sole exception of a few anguished liberal voices of dissent. The most common complaint was not that the Government was wrong to slash benefits, rather that it should have done so by much more. This is scarcely surprising since there are few groups which are held in lower regard by the community than welfare recipients. 'Mainstream opinion in society sees them as morally undeserving,' said Professor Lau Siu-kai of Chinese University. 'The Government is fortunate to be attacking a group who are not well-organised and face the prejudice of Hong Kong society.' The problem for the administration is that not all battles are going to be so easy. Lurking unspoken in the background during last week's benefit cuts was the tight financial predicament overshadowing next March's budget. No one in Government makes any attempt to deny this budget will be the most difficult in many years. Even if it proves impossible to avoid another deficit, Financial Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen will, at least, feel obliged to try to narrow the size of the shortfall. That may mean tax increases, even if these are disguised in the form of lower-than-expected increases in personal allowances. It will certainly mean raising government fees and charges, since the unprecedented freeze that was imposed in the last budget can scarcely be sustained for a second year. Whatever it does, the administration's subsequent attempts to retreat from the spectre of another huge budget deficit are certain to provoke much more of an outcry than this initial foray against welfare recipients. 'When it comes to tax increases, you're affecting a much larger group of people, some of whom may be quite influential,' Professor Lau said. 'The Government is very lucky to have got its retreat off to such a good start.' That does not necessarily mean the administration deliberately planned it this way. Especially since the attack on benefit recipients has been in the works much longer, and predates the present economic crisis. Many in Government were never happy with the way in which former Governor Chris Patten and a handful of his now-departed advisers pushed through such huge increases in welfare spending during the final years of British rule, so reversing earlier decades of shameful neglect. Thus it was only natural that they should move to reverse this as soon as the advent of Tung Chee-hwa as Chief Executive gave them the flexibility to do so. Mr Tsang had been shaken by the hostile public response he received when he appeared on a radio phone-in shortly after the 1996 budget to announce a rise in welfare payments for large families to $10,270 a month. Callers complained this was more than many working families received. And Mr Tsang's intention to rein in the rate of increase in welfare spending became clear shortly afterwards. In June, he finally made this public, referring to concern over the 'phenomenal rise' in public expenditure in this area over the past few years. Now the rollback has begun in earnest. The Government has had an easy hand to play on this occasion. But it is unlikely to be so lucky when it comes to some of the more controversial decisions which will have to be made in the budget next March.