19 April 2019
Financial Secretary Paul Chan appears to be only toeing the government’s line on how to deal with the budget surplus. Photo: HKEJ
Financial Secretary Paul Chan appears to be only toeing the government’s line on how to deal with the budget surplus. Photo: HKEJ

Govt on alert: Will public discontent with budget boil over?

As expected, Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po refused to offer cash handouts to the public in his latest budget despite the record fiscal surplus of HK$138 billion.

There have been mounting calls from lawmakers and the public in general for Chan to reconsider his decision. Even pro-establishment media in Hong Kong, which rarely spoke out against government policies in the past, have joined in listing the advantages of offering cash giveaways.

As the editorial of one of the pro-Beijing newspapers put it, the government has definitely taken a step in the right direction by investing heavily in education and health care.

However, it added, the administration should also return a portion of its huge surplus to the public in the form of cash handouts, which it said would not only make everybody happy but also help to “improve the social atmosphere” in Hong Kong.

Nevertheless, according to a source in the government, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and her cabinet had been against offering across-the-board and “pointless” cash handouts to the public right from the start. Chan’s decision not to heed public calls for cash handouts wasn’t just his own idea but also is in line with Lam’s policy vision.

The source went on to say that they would rather invest in and push for some long-term policy initiatives, which wouldn’t have any instant effect but which would benefit society as a whole in the long run. This is what the administration hoped the public would understand.

Therefore, what Chan did was only toe the government’s line on how to deal with the surplus.

Unfortunately, it appears members of the public just don’t buy that notion, nor do lawmakers from both ends of the political spectrum and even Beijing’s mouthpieces in Hong Kong, which seldom disagreed publicly with government decisions over the years.

It is said that the government is keeping a close eye on whether there are simmering grievances among the public against the budget.

And numbers don’t lie. According to an instant poll conducted by the Public Opinion Programme of the University of Hong Kong last Wednesday, this year’s budget only got 48.2 points in satisfaction rating, the lowest in 10 years.

Nonetheless, according to sources, the memory of the HK$6,000 cash handouts in 2011, when former financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah was forced to change his mind amid pressure from pro-establishment lawmakers, has also discouraged the government from giving out cash.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 1

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.

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