Lion rock

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 March, 2003, 12:00am

Last year's maiden Budget address by Financial Secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung was memorable for his appeal to a nostalgic revival of the community spirit that underpinned Hong Kong's economic success in past decades.

At the end of his speech, the financial secretary recited the lyrics of the heart-warming song, Below the Lion Rock:

'Of one mind in pursuit of our dream,

All discord set aside, with one heart on the same bright quest,

Fearless and valiant inside.

Hand in hand to the ends of the Earth,

Rough terrain no respite,

Side by side we overcome ills,

As the Hong Kong story we write.'

Faced with a severe budgetary deficit problem and protracted economic gloom, Mr Leung called on people from all walks to life to put aside their differences to work together to recreate the success of Hong Kong.

Mr Leung was recalling the days when water rationing was routine and when whole families had to work at assembling plastic flowers or putting stickers on toys to make ends meet.

'We have moved on past all those times now,' he said in last year's Budget address. But the spirit of those times, he said, remains relevant while Hong Kong deals with the current economic crisis.

One year on, there has been less talk about the spirit of Below the Lion Rock, which was a popular RTHK television series of stories about low-income families in late 1970s and 1980s.

Confronted with the harsh reality of a decline in their standard of living, people have reacted to their change of fortunes with a mood of resistance.

To the 170,000-strong civil servants and their families, a salary cut back to 1997 levels represents not just a reduction of wages. Perhaps more important, it is a stark reminder that Hong Kong is on a downhill slide back to where it was with the change of sovereignty.

Even if a pay cut must happen, they want to delay the process so they can adapt gradually to the shock in their daily living and state of mind.

More than six years after the Hong Kong economy faltered in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial turmoil, many people are still unable to accept the reality of a lower living standard.

But that situation will become all too real when the financial secretary delivers his next Budget, scheduled for Wednesday. Tens of thousands of wage earners who were exempted from the tax net in the 1998-99 Budget will have to pay more - as they did in and before 1997 - to the treasury.

More households will have to pay higher rates and government fees and charges in a desperate government attempt to ease the deficit.

Businessmen, who applauded the decision to cut the profits tax from 16.5 to 16 per cent in 1998-99, may now have to pay 17 to 17.5 per cent on their profits.

In a way, the depth of the resistance against tax hikes over the past two weeks, from businessmen to the middle class, reflects a sea change in Hong Kong society.

In the 1970s, when most people had to struggle to make ends meet, the society coalesced around a spirit of neighbourhood and bonds of common destiny.

But after a long period of amazing growth in wealth and prosperity, different - sometimes conflicting - values have become ingrained in this increasingly dynamic society.

With stakeholders having more to lose in the deficit-beating exercise, the rule of the game now is how to bargain for the best deal in their own interest.

This shows clearly when people express their doubts over whether the principle of sharing the burden equally will be applied.

When the future seems uncertain and the past irrelevant, people set their eyes on the present to ensure they will not lose out when asked to work together.

Chris Yeung is the Post's Editor-at-Large