Unlike Xi Jinping, Carrie Lam fails to deliver when it matters
Philip Bowring says while the initiatives announced in the policy address may have some positive effect, none really tackles the major problems Hong Kong faces in housing, urban planning, environmental management and technological development. Nor will they spur economic innovation
President Xi Jinping has a grand plan to make China a fully modern and exemplary society and the world’s leading state. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has 200-plus new initiatives which aim to...?
For sure, Lam’s policy address made for many days of happy headlines. Doubtless, many of the initiatives are worthy, addressing public concerns and alleviating problems in health care, welfare, education and housing. But not one of them takes a radical look at what are widely acknowledged to be the major problems facing Hong Kong. Leadership requires daring and quality ideas, not overlong hours in the office.
Key points of Carrie Lam’s first policy address
Lam may be forgiven for avoiding the thorny issues of Article 23 anti-subversion legislation and constitutional development, as these can only arouse more strife. But what sort of government can be expected from a chief executive who stuffs her Executive Council with such figures as Laura Cha Shih May-lung, Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, Chow Chung-kong and Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, all long past their sell-by dates, and representatives of such blatantly unrepresentative interest groups as Kenneth Lau Ip-keung of the Heung Yee Kuk?
If you want a snapshot of the government’s views on who matters in Hong Kong, look at the list of Bauhinia awardees. The 12 Grand Bauhinia Medals were reserved for government officials plus three property tycoons, Ronnie Chan Chichung, Vincent Lo Hong-sui and Henry Cheng Kar-shun. These three have a huge interest in maintaining the huge profits from our divisive land and property policies.
Officials and members of government bodies also dominated the Gold Bauhinia Star awards. Of the total of 138 Bauhinia awards, not one went to a non-Chinese. In short, officials and oligarchs rule the roost; entrepreneurs, creative individuals, leading professionals get scant recognition; and non-Chinese are nowhere in supposedly cosmopolitan Hong Kong. So much for spurring the economy and reconciling frustrated younger generations to the political system.
Tinkering with taxes as a means of spurring economic development was typical. Halving corporate tax for the first HK$2 million of profits and allowing 300 per cent write-offs of research and development spending are nice little handouts but have no wider relevance other than creating more employment for accountants and bureaucrats. It would be better to cut all top tax rates to, say, 12 per cent and get rid of all the deductions and petty incentives that just create bureaucracy. That would be a far bigger incentive to new business than R&D giveaways determined by civil servants who almost certainly will latch on to last year’s “new thing”. Lam parrots Beijing’s belt and road talk but practical interest in Asia to the west and south is lacking.
The lack of application of modern technology is nowhere more evident than in areas where the government itself is involved. Two aspects of truly modern cities stand out. One is environmental: control of pollution, waste management, water and energy conservation. All these can be addressed with technology which exists and money which the government has. But the will to take on entrenched interests is nowhere to be found in Lam’s address.
Likewise the topic of transport. The taxi racket enriching rentiers at the expense of users and drivers remains unaddressed. The government’s Legislative Council supporters cannot even bring themselves to increase parking fines, let alone introduce the car control measures found in Singapore and other cities. Technology has made road pricing much easier, yet Hong Kong cannot even implement a coherent tunnel toll system. The city’s public transport system would work better if roads were not so often blocked by illegally parked vehicles or police took seriously the offence of obstructing a junction box. Hong Kong spends billions on more roads for more cars while advanced cities find less-polluting ways of easing movement.
Next on the list of fundamental issues to be addressed is demographics. Does the government have any policies on immigration which would boost business and attract entrepreneurs? Or to open the way to the entry of doctors, nurses and other carers? Or is it to continue relying on the exploitation of domestic helpers with no settlement rights to tend to the old and sick? Or is it hoping to persuade old folk to move to the mainland?
Where is there any consideration of addressing the ageing problem by reference to how best to use the now about HK$1.7 trillion in total accumulated reserves for the benefit of those who are the moral owners of that wealth? Or address the ongoing issue, despite improvements, of the excessive costs of the Mandatory Provident Fund?
As for the hottest issue of all, the land prices which reward rentiers and oligarchs at the expense of all others, Lam has more tinkering. The Starter Homes scheme is a drop in the ocean. Reclamation may or may not be a good idea but can make no difference to housing supply for a decade. She offers not a hint of taking on the property companies who sit on huge acreages, or to abolish the ludicrous small-house policy, or enforce land laws in the New Territories so that owners are forced to develop their junk yards and container dumps.
Lam has already lost her biggest chance to show she is a leader, not a technician.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator