Quality counts when it comes to Hong Kong handouts

With there being virtual consensus across the political divide that Paul Chan did not give enough away in his budget, the time has come for transparent rules on such matters

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 March, 2018, 3:36am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 March, 2018, 3:36am

Finance chief Paul Chan Mo-po probably thought he had learned a lesson from history about handing over cash as a “sweetener” to the people. Wasn’t his predecessor, John Tsang Chun-wah, rounded on in 2011 when he decided to give everyone HK$6,000?

Back then, Tsang was denounced as wasteful. How ironic that Chan is now being jumped on by many for not giving back cash. There is now a virtual consensus across the political aisle in the legislature that Chan is being stingy with his latest budget.

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Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the city’s largest pro-government party, said he had failed to give back to the people despite a massive surplus. Party comrade Leung Che-cheung urged him to revise the budget while Ann Chiang Lai-wan, another DAB lawmaker, said she was forming a platform for locals to voice their grievances against the budget.

Meanwhile, hard-core localist lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dick warned that his camp might even consider joining hands with its rivals to threaten to vote down the appropriation bill unless Chan changed his mind on handouts.

Chan must be wondering how he ended up here. In 2013, Hang Lung Properties tycoon Ronnie Chan Chi-chung called Tsang “a sinner” for splashing out HK$200 billion in handouts, rebates and freebies which “could have built 30 Hong Kong Universities of Science and Technology and 30 Queen Mary Hospitals”.

In a letter to this newspaper then, a senior secondary school student summed up the widespread criticism. “With rising inflation and housing prices, as well as needs in health care, education and the environment, surely there are other more pressing issues that could do with the money,” the student wrote.

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The decision was generally considered as misguided, so much so that former chief executive Leung Chun-ying cited it twice last year in the run-up to the chief executive election to discredit Tsang as a candidate in favour of Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

But the real issue is the overall quality of the government budget, not just whether there should be a cash handout or not. Officials have found it difficult to make a convincing case for their discretionary budgetary measures, year after year. The only way out is to establish transparent rules on how much to spend or retain in proportion to the size of a surplus.