Will Carrie Lam open the door on Article 23 and political reform in her first policy address?
Mike Rowse says while focusing on education, housing and the economy, the chief executive also needs to tackle some thorny issues, and make it clear that independence is a no-go for Hong Kong
The annual policy address by the chief executive is always important, never more so than when it is first given by a new holder of the position. So when Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor stands up in the Legislative Council next month, it will be the first real opportunity for us to gauge her actual priorities.
There is sure to be something on education, always a subject close to the hearts of Hong Kong parents, and indeed the focus of her first major initiative. Since the HK$5 billion reform package sailed through the Finance Committee, it would be reasonable to give herself a modest pat on the back for a job well begun.
Housing is the most pressing issue for many families. Prices have gone beyond all reasonable levels and have led to great divisions in our society between those who acquired property many years ago and are sitting on huge notional paper gains, and those who can never buy at current price levels. If middle-class citizens feel the system froze them out, their role as the stabilising force of moderation is at risk.
Carrie Lam’s focus on affordable housing in Hong Kong will finally help the squeezed ‘sandwich’ class
It should be a source of shame for us all that developers put living spaces of less than 150 square feet on the market and find queues of buyers. Apart from some palliative measures – inviting NGOs to manage shared apartments at reasonable rentals, for example – we really need a breakthrough in securing land that already exists, or can be created, and building homes at prices ordinary people can afford. Imagine the impact on sentiment if the government set a minimum of 500 sq ft for apartments and offered a few thousand per year for sale at construction cost plus a modest margin, say 20 per cent. The ripple through the market could see a restoration of common sense prices.
Hints have also been dropped that we can expect measures to boost the economy, but special tax allowances for research and development, or lower tax rates for profits below a certain threshold, for example, are only going to benefit companies already profiting. Far better would be to use the same public money to help start-ups launch and take flight. But there may be some projects where a relatively modest capital injection could have a substantial and long-term economic impact.
Nobody comes to office with a completely clean slate, of course, because we are all bound to some extent by what was done – and not done – by our predecessors. Lam is therefore going to have to dip her toe into some shark-infested pools that she would probably rather avoid.
First, independence. Repeating mildly what every thinking person knows – independence for Hong Kong is nonsense – will not be enough to satisfy the audience in the north. This is probably the appropriate place to remind our pan-democrats that there is an audience to the north. So, a carefully crafted statement ruling out independence, while trying not to trample all over freedom of speech, is needed.
This is going to lead Lam into the equally troubled waters of Article 23. Frankly, it is ludicrous that, 20 years after the establishment of the special administrative region, we have not yet fulfilled our constitutional duty to enact national security laws. We are a mature, sophisticated society with a good appreciation for the rule of law and we know that all the issues are already covered by a mishmash of archaic legislation and common law. And we know we have it within ourselves to craft a carefully worded bill, or series of bills, to do the job.
What holds us back, of course, is the legacy of the way the mission was so badly botched when first attempted in 2003. Will Lam take the plunge and say the job must at least be started in her administration? Under the auspices of a new secretary for justice, perhaps?
Finally, there is no way of avoiding the vexed question of political reform. It is an integral part in the public mind of the other two difficult issues. So Lam will need to strike a careful balance, putting a stop to the childish prattling about independence, and declaring work on national security legislation must begin, while confirming that the door to meaningful reform at both chief executive and Legco levels is very much open. Wish her luck.
Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises. [email protected]