Pro-Beijing parties in Hong Kong have often faced criticism for offering freebies ahead of elections in a bid to secure the loyalty of voters, particularly the elders and the low-income groups.
Opposition groups say the gifts, which usually comprise foodstuffs or free meals or city tours, amount to vote-buying and undermining the integrity of the electoral process.
The establishment camp refutes the charges, saying the small gifts are just a way of showing courtesy to the locals, and that allegations of bribery and corruption are unwarranted.
Amid the controversy over giveaways, ordinary people are a confused lot, with opinion divided as to whether the freebies represent a moral hazard.
Well, joining the debate now is Regina Ip, chairperson of the pro-Beijing New People’s Party and a member of the Executive Council.
In a TV program aired Wednesday night, Ip told a group of children that small gifts merely represent a show of courtesy to the local community and that they needn’t be seen as wrongful acts.
On the program which was broadcast by Viu TV, Ip fielded questions from five children in the age group of 8 to 10 on many issues related to Hong Kong.
Outlining her beliefs and core values as a prominent politician, Ip sought to defend controversial government actions such as use of tear gas on street protesters during the 2014 Occupy campaign.
But what drew most attention — and criticism — from observers were her comments related to the issue of voter appeasement through freebies.
When a kid asked Ip the reason for giveaways, the lawmaker said it is just a way of expressing gratitude and courtesy to the local community.
“Everybody is doing it… It’s just a show of courtesy,” Ip said. “It’s similar to bringing you guys along for a trip. It’s no problem.”
As she suggested that there was nothing wrong in people accepting gifts such as snake soup, vegetarian meals, cakes or rice dumplings, Ip has faced criticism from some pan-democrats.
The lawmaker is sending a wrong message to the next generation, they said, questioning the appropriateness of her remarks in front of the kids.
While Hong Kong law has a clear definition on which actions are classified as vote-buying, offers such as snake soup, moon cakes or rice dumplings during non-election time fall in the grey zone.
Democrats say offers of free meals and gifts to the public serve to distort the political scene and the real work done by district councilors and lawmakers.
Politicians should focus on fixing the problems and improving the services in the community, rather than seeking to buy the loyalty of the public through gifts and meals, they say.
As democrats in any case cannot match the generosity of the deep-pocketed establishment camp, they have sought to maintain a moral high ground.
From an outside perspective, Ip’s remarks during the TV program do appear unseemly, given that authorities have always stressed that elections should be fair and transparent without any vote-buying activities.
But the problem is that the government has not barred politicians from offering gifts during non-election period. This has provided an opportunity for Ip to dismiss the freebies as courtesy gestures.
The stark truth is that many senior citizens, especially from low-income groups, do appreciate the giveaways and they don’t hide their intention to support the politicians that offered the freebies.
The freebies may not be illegal during the non-election period, but they will undermine the fairness of the election system in the long run.
What Hong Kong people really need is politicians caring about the issues that affect people’s daily lives, rather than offers of free meals and bus tours.
Evidence of this is the support garnered by some young candidates in the district council election last November.
People like Kwong Po-yin of Youngspiration focused on discussing community problems with their constituents, aiming to improve services for students and the elderly.
Kwong did not offer any freebies, yet locals rewarded the “umbrella soldier” with a Whampoa West district council seat.
There is a lesson in this for old-time politicians such as Ip.
Free giveaways may help parties gain some short-term support, but what ultimately matters to our voters is the commitment of our public figures to improve people’s daily lives.
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