Hong Kong lawmakers have expressed varying levels of disappointment in the government’s 2019 budget, which was unveiled Wednesday morning by Financial Secretary Paul Chan.
Legislators across the spectrum found fault in the budget as failing to adequately address livelihood issues, such as public healthcare, elderly care and childcare. The budget also lacked relief measures targeting the “N-nothing” group, meaning people who do not receive any benefits under the existing framework.
Another common complaint among lawmakers was the apparent lack of banner policies that would suggest a new fiscal vision. For example, last year’s policy of a HK$4,000 cash handout did not return.
Reactions to the 2019-20 budget – click to view:
Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung said his party would not support the budget in its current form, and would seek amendments.
Yeung criticised the budget as failing to take care of the “N-nothing” group, and said he was unimpressed with the measures promoting innovation, such as the investment in Cyberport.
Lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki said that the recurrent spending on public health service – which the government put at HK$80.6 billion – needs to be even higher, and go above 20 per cent of the government’s overall annual spending.
Meanwhile, his colleague Dennis Kwok said that the budget did not take into account the recent developments in the Sino-US trade war, and warned that Hong Kong’s trade policy must be international and not just restricted to the Greater Bay Area region.
New People’s Party leader Regina Ip called the budget “cautious and conservative” and lacking in new ideas. She said many of Hong Kong’s issues – most notably in its healthcare system – were structural and could not just be solved by “throwing resources at the problem.”
Ip added that the proposed HK$20 billion to purchase property for welfare facilities should not turn into just another opportunity for property developers to profit.
Nevertheless, Ip and her colleague Eunice Yung said their party would vote to pass the budget.
Lawmaker Claudia Mo, who convenes the pro-democracy camp, said that the Liaison Office of the Chinese government “wrote the script” for finance chief Paul Chan. Mo said his speech had an unprecedented section on “national development,” and that national priorities on the Greater Bay Area and the Belt and Road Initiative had shaped the government’s fiscal planning.
Lawmaker Au Nok-hin pointed to the disparity between the government’s upcoming infrastructure spending, which is set to increase by 70 per cent over the next four years, and the money spent on livelihood issues.
Au’s colleague Gary Fan questioned the decision to allocate HK$353 million to the tourism industry. He said Hongkongers were already fed up with mainland tourists, and the situation had been exacerbated by the opening of the high-speed rail project and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao mega bridge.
Party leader Starry Lee said the DAB welcomed the government’s proposal on tax relief, and it was “understandable” for there to be a reduction in the rebate amount. However, Lee said she was disappointed that there was no one-month rent waiver for public housing tenants, a policy her party had called for.
Legislator Ann Chiang said that, in terms of medical spending, the budget was “cold-blooded” though, ultimately, “better than nothing.” She questioned whether the HK$700 million allocated to the Hospital Authority would be effective in addressing the manpower shortage at public hospitals. The spending on drug subsidies also decreased from last year, she said.
Vincent Cheng said it was good that the government allocated HK$2 billion for transitional housing, but said the policy on its own was not enough. Cheng also said the policy to improve public toilets should be more widely implemented.
Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said the budget was overly focused on the Greater Bay Area, and was “only concerned with what the central government wants, and not what the public needs.”
Wu also called on the government to give a cash handout of at least HK$3,000 to eligible residents, because the “N-nothing” demographic and over two million workers would not receive any benefits from the budget.
Lawmaker Andrew Wan also criticised the budget for not putting forward new policies to deal with the housing market. Wan also said it was a bad sign for the government to transfer the HK$82.4 billion Housing Reserve back to the fiscal reserves, since the money was originally meant for housing development.
BPA lawmaker Jeffrey Lam said that the budget was unfair to the middle class, as they would benefit less under the reduced tax relief.
The party also welcomed the proposal for revitalising industries, but said that the budget did not cater to an ageing workforce that is looking to reskill.
The FTU’s Wong Kwok-kin said that the budget did not have a lot of meat on its bones: “The ideal budget would be a drumstick, but the reality is a chicken rib. But it can’t always be meaty, a chicken rib is still chicken,” he said.
A lot of the measures proposed in the budget would take some years before their effects would be felt by the public, Wong added.
At the press conference, lawmaker Alice Mak also held a sign that said “No flavour, sweeteners, or surprises.”
Despite his party’s misgivings, Wong said the FTU would still vote in favour of the budget.
The Labour Party’s Fernando Cheung said he will vote against the budget because it did not tackle key livelihood issues. Cheung said that the government’s relief measures disproportionately helped the relatively wealthy, instead of those truly in need.
Shiu Ka-chun, who represents the social welfare functional constituency, said the government was inept at dealing with Hong Kong’s poverty problem, but he approved of the recommendation to add more social workers to schools and increase manpower at childcare centres.
IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok described the budget as “old wine in an old bottle,” saying that it pays lip service to technology innovation, but failed to address the shortage of local talent and a need to fill the skills gap in the market.
‘Forward-looking and strategic’
After the financial secretary’s LegCo appearance, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung gave a short statement expressing support for the budget and urged lawmakers to pass it as soon as possible.
“The budget adopts a forward-looking and strategic fiscal approach, with the aim of nurturing industries, supporting enterprises, enhancing public services, improving people’s livelihood and investing in the future,” Cheung said.
Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng attended the budget speech but did not take questions on her way out. Meanwhile, Chief Executive Carrie Lam missed the speech as she was on an official trip to Thailand.
Executive Councillor Chow Chung-kong described the budget as “balanced” and dismissed concerns that the government’s fiscal reserves were in trouble.
“Overall, I think this budget balances the books… We should support this budget because it managed to generate momentum and improve livelihoods even in a difficult economic environment,” he said.
Before Paul Chan spoke at the legislature, protesters outside called for labour-friendly policies, more elderly care and public health spending. Some also urged the government to reform taxes and implement the long-awaited universal pension scheme.
Protesters hailing from both pro-Beijing and pro-democracy groups held props displaying the face of the financial secretary on footballs – a pun on Chan’s Chinese name.
Chan wrote on his blog in December that, if the public throws a ball to him, he will “catch it.”
HKFP’s coverage in full:
- Budget 2019-20 live blog – as it happened.
- Tax cuts but fewer one-off sweeteners, as surplus set to drop.
- Gov’t ‘capable’ of realising HK$500bn mass land reclamation plan.
- HK$5.5bn set aside for IT development at Cyberport.
- Gov’t allocates HK$20bn to purchase 60 properties for new welfare facilities.