20 October 2018
Financial Secretary John Tsang delivers a budget speech that is full of political calculation and wisdom. Photo: Reuters
Financial Secretary John Tsang delivers a budget speech that is full of political calculation and wisdom. Photo: Reuters

Social problems unlikely to be resolved without true democracy

It is obvious that Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah has put a lot of effort into formulating his latest budget, which is full of political calculation and wisdom.

According to an opinion poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong, the 2015-16 Budget received a five-year high of 60.2 marks and a net approval rating of 28 percent, 48 percent higher than the previous year.

In comparison, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s policy address, which went to great lengths to lambast the Undergrad but failed to deliver anything substantial, only received 49.5 marks immediately after its delivery, and its score dropped further to 43.4 after one week.

It goes without saying that the budget speech has totally eclipsed the policy address, and the incompetent Leung Chun-ying should simply step down and let someone else take his job.

Hong Kong’s current social conflict has its roots in the hegemony of big real estate developers.

To make matters worse, the asymmetrical assimilation process between Hong Kong and the mainland, the lack of opportunities for our young people to climb up the social ladder and our unfair political system all add up to the current social crisis.

Although the 79-day Occupy Movement was directly triggered by the 2017 political reform, the fact that the entire movement was spearheaded by people aged under 40 suggests that the discontent among the younger generation has already reached the tipping point.

Vice President Li Yuanchao, who is also deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Liaison Task Force, has declared that the SAR government and the patriotic forces in Hong Kong have achieved a “stage victory” in the struggle against the Occupy Movement.

But the social problems in the territory haven’t seen any improvement at all, and brutal suppression alone can never truly resolve the differences in our society. It seems it is only a matter of time before the next, even bigger resistance movement breaks out.

A democratic political system is widely regarded as the superstructure of a capitalist society.

“One person, one vote” and a free market that guarantees fair competition are indeed the best socio-economic combination in which an equal society can truly flourish.

Unfortunately, the entire economy of Hong Kong is controlled by big real estate developers and business conglomerates, and our legislature is also dominated by pro-establishment factions and functional constituencies, while the pan-democrats are totally excluded from the decision-making process and can only act as the opposition, thereby leading to the current political deadlock.

Therefore, in order to resolve our social conflict in a non-violent way and redistribute our social resources more fairly, the government must return power to the people, and facilitate an election system that can truly represent and uphold the interests of the general public.

Party politics should also be implemented in order to make sure that only the person with the highest popular support can assume the leadership role.

John Tsang is often considered a dove among high-ranking officials in the SAR government. He didn’t regard pro-democracy protesters and participants in the Occupy Movement as enemies, nor did he ever try to consolidate his power by means of political struggle.

He also prefers dialogue to confrontation, and holds a completely different view from that of Leung Chun-ying on the art of governance.

Compared with Leung, Tsang is more likely to find favor with the majority of the public who are looking forward to a more stable and harmonious society.

However, John Tsang does have his limitations. After all, he remains a political proxy of vested interests and his mindset is still confined to the philosophy of active non-intervention.

He is also bound by the principle of “spending within our means” as stipulated in the Basic Law when it comes to government expenditures.

With his boss Leung Chun-ying always soliciting government funding for this and that project to please the public, Tsang’s work isn’t easy.

Last year the territory saw an economic growth of 2.3 percent, while the export of goods and services recorded disappointing gains of 1 percent and 0.5 percent respectively.

It appears an economic slowdown is looming on the horizon. In fact, the government could not have posted a record surplus of HK$63.8 billion this year had it not been for stronger-than-expected tax receipts in the form stamp duties on property sales and excessive revenues from income and profit taxes.

The almost routinely huge discrepancy between the government estimate and the actual amount of surplus is a legacy of the colonial government, and John Tsang simply inherited it from his predecessors.

Interestingly, though, he rarely projected a large budget surplus of HK$36.8 billion in the next financial year, and estimated that the government can earn HK$70 billion from land auctions.

Yet it remains to be seen whether his estimation will turn out to be accurate as the real estate bubble in Hong Kong is likely to burst anytime soon and the economic slowdown in China is likely to continue.

In general, until real democracy is faithfully enforced in Hong Kong, it’s unlikely that the government can come up with a budget that can truly answer public demands and address fundamental social issues.

There is still plenty of room for improvement in this year’s budget, but it is still far better than the policy address, and it appears John Tsang is more cut out for the Chief Executive post than his boss Leung Chun-ying.

The article was published in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 4.

Translation by Alan Lee

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist

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