A few ‘selfish’ ideas for how to spend Hong Kong’s massive budget surplus
Peter Kammerer says free Wi-fi everywhere, electric buses and a more presentable city are some of the meaningful and relatively easy changes that could be made with the budget surplus to improve quality of life
Hong Kong won’t find out until budget day on Wednesday just how much spare cash Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po has to throw around. There are estimates it could be as much as a record HK$180 billion, on top of the trillions already in reserve.
It’s an obscene amount for any government to be sitting on, particularly when it has repeatedly avoided tackling the problems that now have our city veering towards a social crisis. But I’m not about to suggest the funds should be used to provide affordable housing, end poverty, improve the public health and education systems or help the dissatisfied young and elderly; rather, I’m going to put forward some ideas for my own selfish gain.
Mr Chan: I’d like free Wi-fi provided for every corner, nook and cranny of our city. Your boss, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, repeatedly talks about innovation, technology and digital this and that, and this perfectly fits such thinking. Most of us are constantly peering at smartphone screens wherever we go, walking into one another and even putting ourselves in danger at road crossings; with even better connectivity, we could play online games and shop even when in country parks. Maybe all that connectivity would motivate bus companies with poorly developed apps, taxi firms that don’t even have them yet for booking, banks that don’t want to invest in better personal identification systems, and shops reluctant to go online to get their acts together.
I mentioned bus companies; much of our roadside pollution is because of the soot coming from the exhausts of their diesel vehicles. It’s so bad that even though I live on the 10th floor, having a window open for even a few hours leaves a fine layer of black dust coating shelves and, for sure, my lungs. It’s no wonder I get bronchitis and allergies and I know from all the coughing, wheezing and sore throats and dripping noses around me, I’m far from the only one. The number of electric buses on our streets is minuscule and our government isn’t exerting pressure for the early retirement of old fleets. But that budget windfall could instantly improve the air and the health of many, myself included, by ensuring bus firms go fully electric.
Unpolluted air is only part of the problem. I recently visited the Fujian province city of Xiamen and encountered the cleanest and most orderly streets of anywhere I’ve been in China. Even the dingiest back alley sparkled; unlike in our city, not a rat or mouse is to be seen. Trees, bushes and grass thrive and flowers brighten up roadsides; a far cry from the straggling and often dying or dead vegetation on offer here. Buildings are well maintained and kept freshly painted. Why not spend a proportion of our largesse on making Hong Kong more presentable, liveable and, dare I say, even hospitable?
On that Fujian trip, I ventured into a far-flung rural area and encountered garbage collection, backwards China style. Rubbish was left in foul-smelling piles beside roads and was collected by a truck with a shovel-wielding workman. It reminded me of the process in the building I live in and many others like it that don’t have centralised collection; bags are piled onto trolleys each night and dumped on the roadside until collected during the night. Two decades after former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa gave his “green” policy address, we’ve barely moved an inch on recycling, being less wasteful and more responsible towards our environment.
Authorities have known about high housing prices for years. Poverty levels have been creeping up under their noses. Land is as in short supply now as it was last century. Making good jobs for the young available will take time, as will putting in place a genuine pension scheme. All of these matters require huge amounts of investment and years to fix. So, Mr Chan, why not make me happy by picking some of the low-hanging fruit with your spare cash?
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post