This is by way of being an open letter to the surprisingly large group of people who will shortly be bidding for my two votes in the upcoming Legislative Council elections. Hello, whoever you are, because now that we have official vetting of election lists, I am not sure who you are yet.
A brief word about this innovation. In English elections, the Returning Officer is the senior official of the local government for the area. He is politically neutral by profession and habit because he has to work with whatever councillors the electorate saddles him with. He is not employed by the central government.
In Hong Kong the Returning Officer is the local District Officer. He is not employed by the District Council. He is a fully paid-up member of the Administrative Officer grade, whose promotion prospects are subject to the whims of the Civil Service Branch and, for top jobs, the Liaison Office. Clearly such a person will not be trusted by the public to make an objective and impartial judgement on a matter about which his superiors have already announced a policy. Robustly independent spirits do not join the Hong Kong SAR Government these days, I fancy, and if they do the independence has been squashed before they become District Officers, or they never will.
Anyway, to business. My son recently visited the UK. Upon his return he started talking about the possibility of migrating permanently. This is not the sort of temporary infatuation which we all occasionally feel after a successful holiday. He studied in the UK for four years, in one of which he had a horrible accident which engendered a lasting affection for the National Health Service. He knows whereof he speaks. He has seen a south coast seaside resort in winter. There are few more depressing sights. So perhaps the idea is not unrealistic.
My heart says this is a terrible idea. We have been here before: the Loneliness of the Long-distance Parent. See you on Skype next week? Will you come home for the holidays if we pay for the ticket? My head asks: what can you tell a young man in his 20s that will attract him to stay in Hong Kong?
And this is where you, if elected, come in. Because I am really struggling to think of a good reason why a young person who has inherited from me a versatile world-wide passport should bet his future on the prospects for Hong Kong. So I hope once you have had the necessary and inevitable argument about the new election mess – sorry, the new election method – you will get ’round to some policies which will allow parents who would like company in their old age to hold out a more or less rosy prospect to their offspring.
Let us start with housing. Everybody knows what is needed here. A lot more of it, especially at the lower end of the market where people are currently reduced to subdivided flats, illegal factory conversions, spaces under fly-overs or long meals in all-night fast-food palaces. C.Y. Leung has made a start on this, but as he is up to his ears in the relevant industry, it has been a half-hearted one.
Real progress will only be made by a government which is prepared to annoy developers by requiring them to get on with it instead of sitting on “land banks”, and putting a stop to the latest way of frustrating the government’s good intentions: the 100 per cent plus mortgage. Housing should be constructed in places where people wish to live, not in distant parts of the New Territories with no railway line where all the land (happy coincidence!) belongs to the Heung Yee Kuk. This means tackling the three organisations which have whole hectares going to waste in or near the urban area: the Hong Kong Golf Club, the Hong Kong Jockey Club and the PLA.
Next, wealth gap. Your approach to this question should not be delayed by attempts to achieve “consensus”. Any solution to the wealth gap must involve taking money from rich people and giving it to poor people. This is painful to rich people, who in general do not become rich unless they are very fond of money. The attitude of Hong Kong’s rich people was nicely summed up by the Chamber of Commerce, which announced that it was against all of the government’s offered options for old age pensions, because all of them implied increased taxation. Once you accept that it will be necessary to upset some people, you can move forward on numerous paralysed projects, including standard working hours, a higher minimum wage, abolition of the MPF offset, and provision of a decent universal pension.
Education. The danger here is of Hong Kong splitting into what in other contexts and places would be called “two nations.” One comprises those who live in private houses, send their kids to private schools, use private hospitals, travel in private (car) transport and relax in private clubs. The other nation lives in public housing or worse, depends on the public provision of schools and hospitals, travels on the MTR or bus and does not get a chance to relax because it is working 12 hours a day.
The gulf between them is wide, and distressing to those on both sides of it if they are sufficiently observant to see it at all. Education is a good place to start trying to fix this because whatever your feelings about impoverished adults, children do not choose their parents and cannot be blamed for where they find themselves. So let us have a generously funded system, free up to graduation. There is no need to attack the private sector but the shortage of international school places is not caused by a surfeit of foreigners, it is caused by the reluctance of local people to put their kids through the government system if they can afford something better. So improve the government system.
At the university level there is a nettle which has been waiting for someone to grasp it for 20 years. Long ago a report pointed out, quite accurately, that Hong Kong did not need eight publicly funded research universities, and suggested two would be sufficient. Arthur Li then broke a good deal of crockery trying to ensure that Chinese U would be one of them. This nonsense has gone on long enough. Let there be the obvious three. Our other publicly funded universities can then be told to forget the league tables and concentrate on teaching properly. If you really want to see what a henhouse looks like when a fox arrives in it, you could suggest that the three chosen ones should no longer teach undergraduates.
Appointments. I know I keep banging on about this but it is totally unacceptable that appointments to all the numerous bodies for which the government supplies names are made on a political basis. Quite apart from the obvious bias and neglect of potential talent, the government’s supporting crowd does not include enough able, intelligent and original people, if indeed it has any. An alternative is needed, which brings us to…
Autonomy. Someone has to get over to our rulers the point that people are not looking at independence because they do not like living in an SAR with a high degree of autonomy, the prospect held out by “one country two systems.” They are looking at independence because we are not living in an SAR with a high degree of autonomy at all.
The alternative to independence, it appears, is a puppet government in which no value is too sacred to be mauled by the profane paws of the Liaison Office. The freedoms which we all value — to select our own lives and jobs, to think and speak our own thoughts, to travel, to choose — are usually protected by a democratic structure. It may be that they could as effectively be protected by a high degree of autonomy, even in a region ultimately subordinate to a Marxist dictatorship. But that will only work if there is a heroic level of self-restraint on behalf of the regime’s local office. Somehow our legislators have to get this point across because it will not, I fear, get much air time in the media.
So there it more or less is, vote-seekers. Candidate required who will try for cheap housing, generous social security, high quality free public education, a health service free at the point of delivery, a neutral way of choosing government chair-warmers and a high degree of genuine autonomy, like it said on the tin before we opened it. All politics requires compromises so I realise I may have to settle for less than the full list. When comparing offers, there are some things which will put me off, so do NOT say in your letter to me:
- Hong Kong people do not understand the Basic Law. BS.
- Hong Kong young people do not understand China. More BS
- Independence is impractical. That’s exactly what they said about Ireland.
- The “Belt and Road” are a golden opportunity.
- Pearl River Delta ditto.
- C.Y. Leung has done a good job of concentrating on livelihood issues.
- Our policemen are wonderful; tear gas is good for the complexion.
- You “like” Hong Kong, particularly its shopping and dining. I am not a tourist.