My Take

Where’s the vision from our chief executive hopefuls?

Front runners Carrie Lam and John Tsang appear clueless on the way forward for Hong Kong when it comes to employing the city’s massive reserves

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 January, 2017, 1:47am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 January, 2017, 1:47am

While news reports are focusing on gaffes made by the two front runners in the chief executive race, what is more interesting is that both are starting to spell out the contours of their policy platforms. The signs are not encouraging.

In the latest gaffe, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor gave a HK$500 note to a beggar. I am surprised critics haven’t seized on it as a sign of things to come if she becomes chief executive. Will welfare spending skyrocket under Lam, a former director of social welfare? Already Lam has said she would make better use of the government’s fiscal surplus to boost spending on welfare and youth services. This would follow her promise to continue the policy of outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

Carrie Lam steals a march on arch-rival John Tsang in Hong Kong leadership race

Under Leung, welfare spending jumped more than 60 per cent. Election rival John Tsang Chun-wah cited that figure, clearly thinking it was a bad thing. Repeating his warning about the coming structural deficits, Tsang said Hong Kong needed to make plans for its ageing population by keeping its finances sustainable. It sounds like more of Tsang’s philosophy of public finance: cap welfare spending while accumulating a budget surplus.

His anti-welfarism was perhaps behind his latest gaffe, in which his repeated use of a Chinese idiom about “rest and recuperate” to describe his policy visions suggested he would take a hands-off approach to governing. This would include, his critics allege, sitting on major problems and letting them fester. They may be reading too much into his idiomatic Chinese. But if any one of the four candidates would adopt a non-interventionist and laissez-faire approach to governing, it would be Tsang.

It all sounds like the same-old, same-old from both Tsang and Lam. Lam says she is consulting experts on economic plans. In other words, she is clueless at the moment. While expanding welfare programmes to help disadvantaged groups in society is laudable, Leung has shown that is far from enough to resolving deep-seated social and political conflicts.

Meanwhile, Tsang needs to tell us what he wants to do with the massive pile of surplus to grow the economy, rather than just keep accumulating it. The surplus itself has become a source of social conflict.

Perhaps Lam and Tsang will surprise us with well-crafted plans to boost our economy and strengthen our society. But don’t hold your breath.