Invest in Hong Kong’s future instead of giving us cash handouts
Paul Yip says the government should support innovation, address land prices and reform service providers, rather than repeating the pointless cash giveaway scheme of 2011
The Hong Kong budget has taken a step in the right direction by committing HK$50 billion to welfare and another HK$50 billion to innovation and technology.
The city has one of the world’s lowest unemployment rates and the number receiving Comprehensive Social Security Assistance has dropped over the years. More effort is required to help those who remain on CSSA, perhaps through a combination of skills training and job opportunities.
In innovation and technology, Hong Kong needs to catch up with its neighbours. There is still a large gap between research in universities and research resulting in a product that benefits society. In her policy address, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor pledged HK$150 million for universities to promote such research. It is also pleasing to see the relaunching of matching money for universities to appeal to donors who may contribute to developing research activities.
However, some legislators have called for universal cash handouts, which would be expensive and wasteful. In 2011, the government gave HK$6,000 to Hongkongers and the total expenditure was about HK$36 billion. We estimate that about a sixth of that went to Hongkongers living overseas. What good does that do here?
About 30 per cent of our surplus derives from better-than-expected land sales. It is this high land premium that makes housing unaffordable. It has had an upwards spiral effect on many other items, making life difficult for those on low incomes.
The government has to decisively moderate the impact of mainland money, which sometimes does more harm than good. That’s why some special measures have been adopted, including a higher tax for non-locals buying property. Other measures, such as a vacancy tax for any unoccupied property, should be implemented. The move by a mainland-owned company to flip two plots of land at Kai Tak to a Hong Kong property developer at a profit is a classic case of driving up costs.
I can understand why the government is not providing one or two months rent waiver for public housing residents. The provision of public housing is a significant factor in quality of life among those with low incomes, yet some 20-30 per cent of public housing residents’ salaries are above the population’s median level. Low-income residents who are not in public housing are the ones who really struggle, and they deserve the most support.
The government must ensure that the additional resources go to the needy rather than just becoming another source of income for service providers, given the instances of abuse of the health care voucher system for the elderly and the transport subsidy scheme. Some service providers have treated the government like an ATM, withdrawing money without delivering benefits.
Hong Kong needs a living and working environment which is affordable and comfortable, in order to attract foreign talent. Unaffordable housing has already become a major source of discontent and a barrier to attracting people.
We should not be misled by the proposal for universal cash handout, as has happened in Macau. Our research suggests that Macau residents are also concerned about housing affordability, working wages and youth mobility. Handouts have neither improved people’s quality of life nor made them happier.
Hong Kong is facing some difficult challenges and they all need additional resources and commitment. The government should be given the chance to fulfil its pledge to make Hong Kong strong again.
As a Hong Kong resident, I would not ask for sweeteners, but rather, some bitter medicine to make our city strong again.
Paul Yip is chair professor (Population Health) in the Department of Social Work and Social Administration, at the University of Hong Kong