23 October 2016
Does Hong Kong's rich-poor gap even appear on Leung Chun-ying's list of "livelihood issues"? Photo:
Does Hong Kong's rich-poor gap even appear on Leung Chun-ying's list of "livelihood issues"? Photo:

Can CY Leung separate livelihood issues from politics?

Can you make something suddenly disappear just by not talking about it?

Maybe magicians can, but even magicians don’t actually make things disappear.

They just use tricks of the eye to make people think they’ve made things disappear.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is not a magician, but even if he is, he can’t make the issue of democracy disappear just by not talking about it.

Zhang Xiaoming, director of the central government’s liaison office, has said he will no longer talk about Hong Kong’s politics, but that is not going to make the fight for democracy go away, either.

It is wishful thinking for Leung to believe he can make the people of Hong Kong forget about democracy by focusing only on livelihood issues in the remaining two years of his term.

The democracy camp certainly won’t let him.

If pan-democrats won’t allow him to put aside democracy and focus only on livelihood issues, he will find it impossible to achieve his wish.

As the saying goes, it takes two to tango.

It is highly unlikely the democrats will tango with Leung by allowing him to set the agenda for issues to be discussed, especially in the Legislative Council.

Democrats will more likely tangle rather than tango with him.

It is not that they don’t care about livelihood issues.

They do, but they rely chiefly on championing democracy rather than livelihood issues to win popularity and elections.

They would be abandoning the main reason for their existence if they put aside their fight for democracy and follow Leung’s agenda of focusing only on livelihood issues for the next two years.

They would also be indirectly helping Leung win a second term if, by cooperating with him, he is able to make good headway in his aim of solving livelihood issues leading up to the 2017 election for chief executive.

As an unpopular leader who failed to win Legco approval for the electoral reform framework, the only card Leung can play to win re-election is to show Hong Kong people he has, at least, improved their lives during his first term.

It is hard to imagine the democrats cozying up to Leung to help improve his popularity.

Most of the people who vote for the pan-democrats do so because they want the pan-democrats to provide checks and balance against the government, to push for democracy and to prevent the central government from abusing the “one country, two systems” policy by exercising too much influence over Hong Kong’s domestic affairs.

They expect democrats to care about livelihood issues, but they do not want the democrats to blindly toe the government line in the same way the pro-establishment camp does.

Realistically, it is also wishful thinking to separate politics from livelihood issues.

The two are interlinked. Livelihood issues are also part of politics.

In Hong Kong, livelihood issues are not just a part of politics but also a big part of the reason so many people are fighting for so-called genuine democracy.

They believe the lack of genuine democracy has created many of the livelihood problems that Leung says he wants to solve.

Public opinion surveys have consistently shown that people demanding genuine democracy make up about half of Hong Kong’s population.

How can the democrats, and Leung, for that matter, pretend that these people do not exist by only focusing on livelihood issues?

What does Leung mean by livelihood and economic issues, anyway?

Does he mean the housing shortage, unaffordable homes, high rents, stagnant wages, the virtual disappearance of Hong Kong’s upward mobility ladder, especially for the younger generation, the joke that is the Mandatory Provident Fund, the inability of the minimum wage to provide a living wage, the lack of standardized working hours, the rich-poor gap, income inequality, our unfair society and the flood of mainland visitors?

In the minds of most ordinary people, the most urgent livelihood issues are unaffordable flats, high rents, the long wait for public housing, income disparity and our unfair society.

But when Leung talks about livelihood issues, he seems to focus more on closer economic integration with the mainland and reaping the benefits of China’s “one belt, one road” initiative.

He thinks long term on livelihood issues, but Hong Kong people think short term.

They want quick fixes on housing and other issues, but it is, of course, impossible for Leung to solve these issues in the remaining two years of his term.

Leung and the democrats also have a separate priority list of livelihood issues.

The democrats and their supporters want standardized working hours, a higher minimum wage, an improved MPF scheme, fairer income distribution and further reducing the number of mainland visitors to Hong Kong.

These livelihood issues have little or no support from the Leung administration, mostly because the government faces stiff opposition from the business sector and vested interests.

The business sector has made clear it does not support standardized working hours, turning the minimum wage into a livable wage, improving the MPF scheme to benefit workers and reducing the flow of mainland tourists.

Many of those who joined Occupy Central and opposed the central government’s reform framework for Hong Kong believe only so-called genuine democracy can provide solutions to the many livelihood issues they are now facing.

But whether democracy, in itself, is a prerequisite for societies to succeed, prosper and solve problems is debatable.

Many people, especially in western countries, believe there is no better form of government than democracy.

Britain’s wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, famously said democracy is the worst form of government except for all other types of government.

But former British prime minister Tony Blair said in a newspaper article last year that democracy is not working as well in the 21st century as it did before.

Other people, especially those in Asia, point to the economic and livelihood problems in Greece and other countries in Europe as examples of democracy being not necessarily the best form of government.

Singapore stands out as a tiny city state with no natural resources that has prospered and solved many of its livelihood issues with limited and controlled democracy.

Although China has numerous unsolved livelihood issues, it has nevertheless prospered rapidly in recent years under a communist government.

Legislator Ronny Tong Ka-wah said on my TV show recently that even he, as a moderate democrat, would not support Leung’s wish of focusing only on livelihood issues.

Like many others, he believes it is impossible to pretend that Occupy Central and the voting down of the electoral reform package did not happen and everyone can just forget about the fight for democracy.

Labour and Welfare Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, however, said on my TV show that it was possible to put aside democracy in the short term and deal with pressing issues such as upward mobility for Hong Kong’s younger generation.

Who is right?

It depends on how the democrats want to play their hand.

It is no secret that many pan-democrats, especially the radicals, rely on confronting the government to get elected.

People such as “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, Raymond Chan Chi-chuen and Albert Chan Wai-yip would become far less relevant to their supporters if they compromised with Leung.

They, along with the other pan-democrats, form the opposition camp.

They will only compromise when it benefits their interests, but they still have to live up to their name of being the opposition camp.

We saw this with the tap water contamination scandal.

This livelihood issue was very quickly politicized and turned into a sledgehammer to beat the Leung administration.

The game plan of Leung and the central government is clear.

As far as they are concerned, a democracy framework was offered to Hong Kong but rejected by the democracy camp.

The central government will not offer a new plan during Leung’s current term, and Leung will use his remaining two years to improve livelihood issues, perhaps in the hope that this will help the pro-establishment camp win more seats in next year’s Legco elections.

This obviously is not a game plan the democrats will play along with.

They cannot say Occupy Central was wrong, the rejection of the reform package was wrong, and they will now forget about democracy and cooperate with Leung on livelihood issues.

Saying that would be political suicide.

To keep their 27 Legco seats or win even more in next year’s elections, they have to defend Occupy Central and the vetoing of the reform framework, and they have to blame Leung and the central government for not allowing genuine democracy in Hong Kong.

The main pillar of their game plan has to be the fight for democracy, not livelihood issues.

This article first appeared in the August 2015 issue of Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.

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