The policy address should be an assessment of Hong Kong’s well being and the problems and opportunities it faces and how the government intends to tackle these issues over the next year. The difficulty for Chief Executive CY Leung is that an honest attempt at this opens a Pandora’s box. So rather than discuss issues which concern people such One Country, Two Systems, constitutional reform, changes to MPF, universal pension and so on, he ignored them.
It is true that he touched on livelihood issues such as housing and measures for the elderly but only in the half-hearted impecunious manner that has characterized the Hong Kong government’s approach to welfare issues in the past. The Hong Kong government has for years ducked the issue of a universal pension claiming that it couldn’t afford it. Meanwhile it happily spends HK$100 billion on questionable infrastructure projects such as Hong Kong-Guangzhou express railway and almost as much again on the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge.
One of the government’s big difficulties is how to hide its riches. The government’s cashed-based system of accounting consistently understates the government’s true financial position. Last month the government quietly released its accrual-based consolidated financial accounts which showed government reserves amounted to HK$1.57 trillion for 2014-15. This compares to the cash-based reserves of HK$828.5 billion. The accrual accounts are depressed by an HK$800 billion item which is mainly for those civil servants that are still on the old defined pension. This liability disappears in 20-30 years time as those joining the civil service since 2000 have a contributory pension. So the government has plenty of reserves to fund a universal pension, and to do considerably more for those that have not participated in wealth.
Instead of dealing with real issues of concern to people the centerpiece of the of the policy address, was Beijing’s bizarre Beijing “One Belt, One Road” initiative. CY Leung’s preoccupation with this project is baffling. Hong Kong already has significant trade links with South East Asia. As for the “Stans” in Northern Asia the prospects for trade and investment appear limited. As many people have observed this One Belt, One Road is a foreign policy initiative to carve out a sphere of influence for China. The Chief Executive’s alacrity in setting up an office and a committee to be chaired by him is ludicrous shoe-shining and of no particular interest or value to Hong Kong.
When China launched its “Go West” initiative in 1999 the then Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa devoted one paragraph to it in his 2000 Policy Address. Donald Tsang, Chief Secretary, at the time dutifully led a contingent of 282 business people on a trip around Western China – a venture it has to be said which proved largely fruitless.
There is a true story about a previous chief executive’s visit to one of the ‘stans.’ After introducing Hong Kong as a big financial and business centre, the chief executive was asked by the president, “Do you do unnumbered accounts?” The implication here is that their respective interests weren’t entirely aligned.
During the policy address CY Leung also talked about another of his initiatives – The Innovation and Technology Bureau. There is a terrible irony here in thinking that the way to encourage innovation is to establish a government department. The private sector is a far better judge of what innovations are worth backing than the government. Leung also mentioned that the new bureau would be responsible for introducing initiatives for turning Hong Kong into a “smart” city.
Now that would have been a more interesting, almost inspiring centerpiece for the policy address rather than the ludicrously named Belt and Road initiative. Hong Kong desperately needs to become a smart city. It used to be. It is stretching belief to think that this administration could come up with a “smart “ initiative even though Hong Kong is ideally placed to explore “smart initiatives,” with its small size and relatively large population.
But this is a government that takes anywhere from 10 months to two years to make a decision on whether to grant outside seating to a restaurant. Two years after suggesting the pedestrianisation of Des Voeux Road, the government is only now showing signs of interest. Hong Kong has one of the world’s finest harbours yet is taking forever to make it an interesting, accessible and enjoyable attraction for the people of Hong Kong. When it comes to innovation and smart thinking the first thing the government needs to do is apply some to itself and examine why it is so pedestrian and incapable of making decisions, smart or otherwise.
Until that day occurs it looks as though government initiatives for Hong Kong from now on will be confined to half-baked government sponsored participation in China’s national plans, all to demonstrate the chief executive’s commitment to integrating Hong Kong with the mainland.
That’s the problem, as one commentator put it, of having a chief executive who rather than being Hong Kong’s man in Beijing, is Beijing’s man in Hong Kong.