Finance chief Paul Chan hints at fewer sweeteners in 2019-20 Hong Kong budget
- Government on track for another surplus but pressures on the public purse are high, minister says
Finance minister Paul Chan Mo-po on Sunday hinted there would be fewer sweeteners for cash-strapped Hongkongers in his next budget as “public resources are not unlimited”.
Chan moved to temper expectations despite revealing that the government was on track to record another surplus in the 2018-19 financial year.
He said hopes were high among the different parties vying for public money, and there was no perfect solution.
“We can only make decisions by striking a balance between different viewpoints,” he wrote in his official blog.
At a public function earlier in the day, Chan disclosed that the city’s finances were relatively healthy again this year.
“I can assure you that the government will have a surplus this financial year,” he said in a speech.
However, a week ago, Wong Kwok-kin, a member of the Executive Council, a group of policy advisers to Hong Kong’s leader, said the surplus was expected to be only a third of the HK$138 billion (US$17.6 billion) figure last year.
Chan predicted a surplus of HK$46.6 billion when delivering this year’s budget in February.
In February he resisted calls for cash handouts to city residents in a move which drew criticism from lawmakers who said he had failed to share the government’s riches.
But after weeks of concerted pressure, a HK$4,000 handout was eventually agreed for 2.8 million people, although the scheme has yet to be implemented.
Chan insisted in his blog that the public should not expect him to roll out or adjust major social policies as that was the job of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.
“The most important role of the budget is to allocate resources for the proposals in the chief executive’s policy address,” he said, “and roll out measures to alleviate the people’s burden”.
Chan also talked of the difficulties handling divergent public opinion.
The “po” in Chan’s name is Cantonese for “ball”. In a play on the name, he said many friends and residents had “passed him the ball” by expecting him to satisfy all their wishes.
“It is not easy ... Government resources are not unlimited, there has to be some give and take,” he said. “Different policies are interrelated, and I need to avoid taking care of one policy and ignoring another.”
He uploaded two videos to his blog. The first shows him carrying a ball and asking residents to give their opinions on the budget. Several replied that tax allowances should be increased and more money spent on subsidised housing, elderly care homes and hospitals.
The second video also shows Chan with a ball as he recorded a television advert about a public consultation exercise.
Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Kwok Wai-keung said he believed Chan was hinting there would be fewer relief measures.
“But I still want him to spend money on building transitional housing for the poor,” Kwok said.
Legislator Vincent Cheng Wing-shun, of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, urged Chan to spend more on subsidised housing.
Democratic Party vice-chairman Andrew Wan Siu-kin, also a lawmaker, said: “It seems likely the surplus is going to shrink this year. But we hope the government will continue to spend money on improving people’s livelihoods.”
Additional reporting by Ng Kang-chung