Nothing to cheer in Hong Kong as its new financial secretary turns out to be another Scrooge
Alice Wu says Paul Chan’s budget plan of tired ideas only signals the dearth of political talent in the city, particularly as we’re now getting an idea of chief executive hopeful John Tsang’s standing with Beijing
I have a confession to make: I feel kind of sorry for Hong Kong’s new financial secretary Paul Chan Mo-po. On the day of his maiden budget speech, more compelling news took attention away from his speech. He had no chance. But, in a sense, he lucked out because his budget plan failed to make an impression; if anything, it reminded others of his predecessor and chief executive hopeful John Tsang Chun-wah, which to many isn’t a good thing.
Chan’s boss and some of his colleagues have been quick to praise his efforts. Executive Council convenor Lam Woon-kwong was generous: “The financial secretary only had a short time to prepare for the budget, and yet it is so comprehensive. This is not an easy achievement.” That’s a nice pat on the back, but it still sounds like a “good try” to me. Some saw no real difference between Chan and Tsang. Liberal Party chief Felix Chung Kwok-pan offered perhaps the harshest words for him with “he is even more conservative than his predecessor”.
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Tsang himself saw little difference between Chan’s “three objectives to public finance” – to develop the economy and improve people’s livelihood, invest in the future, and share the fruits of success – and what he himself had tried to do during his 9½ years of tenure as financial chief.
To have a new financial secretary is supposed to be a good thing. A fresh pair of eyes can inject new ideas, offer new perspectives, and present the public with an alternative way of managing the public purse, even when there are only months left for this administration. But what we heard is the same old song – warnings against spending growth, unsustainability, and the risks of structural deficits; calls for the need for vigilance; and reminders of the virtues of and constitutional necessity for fiscal prudence.
People have been talking about broadening the city’s tax base for almost as long as people have been talking about universal suffrage. The minute widening of the tax band in Chan’s budget is pitiful – so much for “sharing the fruits of success”. We have HK$92 billion of fiscal surplus and there were no surprises in the one-off relief measures.
The sole budget surprise was perhaps the mystery of the tearful wife.
Maybe the problem is the office itself is haunted by Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s as if the ghost of the archetypal miser plays all three spirits – the Ghost of Budget Past, the Ghost of Budget Present and the Ghost of Budget Yet to Come. If that’s the case, then it doesn’t matter who our financial secretary is; we are doomed to hear the same budget carol year after year.
That is certainly depressing, and frankly not in line with the Hong Kong “can-do spirit”. Every financial secretary has tried to convince us that investing in our future is the reason they are doing this and not doing that. But how far can we trust that they know what they are doing?
What seems obvious now is that we need more political talent. Hongkongers now know we have had a financial secretary on the job for almost a decade despite rumours that he didn’t see eye to eye with the chief executive. And one who, now that he is running for the top job himself, Beijing does not trust enough – to the extent that if he were elected, the central government would apparently not appoint him to the job.
If those claims are true, then we are in serious trouble. What does it say about the breadth of political talent in Hong Kong when both the local government and Beijing have had no alternative but to allow someone they don’t agree with or can’t trust completely to have held the public purse strings for so long?
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA