As Leung fights separatism, Lam should dole out more welfare

April 21, 2017 14:26
Leung Chun-ying (right) will remain as his successor Carrie Lam's mentor in combating separatism, while Lam will offer more care for the poor to enhance social harmony. Photo: Bloomberg

During her trip to Beijing earlier this month to be officially anointed the territory’s next top leader, Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam reportedly had two lengthy, closed-door discussions with mainland cadres, including a meeting with Wang Guangya, director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, and a three-hour dinner inside the Great Hall of the People with Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the National People's Congress Standing Committee and the third highest ranking Communist Party official who is also in charge of the party’s working group on Hong Kong affairs.

Clearly these occasions were more than mere ceremonies or customary photo ops. Lam remained tight-lipped when asked afterwards what instructions she was given by her mainland overlords.

Leung will never fade away

Here’s what I see about the shape of things to come.

Leung Chun-ying’s sudden cold feet when everyone thought he was bent on securing a second term as chief executive reflects Beijing’s discerning gauge of the situation and judicious strategizing as well.

Don’t fool yourself thinking Leung must go because Beijing reckoned it would be hard to secure the votes of more than half of the members of the Election Committee for its highly unpopular protégé.

Let’s admit it, it would still be a breeze for Beijing to do that, given the predominance of its loyalists on the committee: the likelihood of an open revolt to defy the imperial decree from up north was minimal.

True, Leung was never liked by many pro-establishment electors, but they could be easily persuaded by mainland cadres to toe the line should Beijing decide to let Leung stay.

But it's a wiser move to elevate Leung to a higher, national capacity – as deputy chairman of the nation’s top political advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference – while having Lam, who is also at Beijing’s beck and call, as a seemingly less obnoxious replacement for Leung. Beijing maintains its grip on Hong Kong while Comrade Leung becomes even more useful in his new post.

As I said in my previous column, Leung will act as a mentor to Lam and a go-between for central authorities and Hong Kong officials.

One can only marvel at Leung’s political scheming and duplicity.

In his remaining days as chief executive, Leung looks like anything but a caretaker leader, as evidenced by his high-profile visit to the Liaison Office, his presentation of a grand vision for the young, and his three-day fanfare trip to six cities in Guangdong this week in the name of concretizing Beijing’s new “Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Bay Area” concept.

Next month he will also head for the capital city to talk about Hong Kong's competitive edge as a keynote speaker at the One Belt, One Road International Summit, President Xi Jinping’s top diplomatic event of the year to be held with all the pomp and circumstance. 

For sure, Lam can expect a lot of “warm reminders” from her predecessor after taking office, in particular when it comes to tackling the “phantom enemy” of Hong Kong independence, which Leung almost singlehandedly “created” and “nurtured” during his own tenure.

All of Leung’s cohorts and operatives that worked to push youngsters toward separatism will remain in the Lam administration.

Thus, Leung, though out of office, will be in charge of the campaign to obliterate separatism, whose seeds he sowed. For after all, he is "the father of Hong Kong independence".

Lam has to buy people’s hearts

As for Lam, my only advice is for her to be more benevolent to those at the bottom rungs of society to make Hong Kong a little more harmonious.

I always advocate more care for the underprivileged, given that the government's punctilious fiscal planning has been contrasting very unfavorably with its swelling coffers over the years.

Hong Kong's revenue amounted to HK$860 billion (US$110.89 billion) at the end of March last year, and its foreign currency reserve reached US$386.2 billion as of December.

Even the business sector, benefiting from a rigged tax regime, has been suggesting raising the profits tax rate for wealth redistribution.

Social welfare won’t alter the nature of a capitalist economy like Hong Kong, when many other economies have higher standards of social assistance and benefits for their citizens, and the risk of draining up the reserve is a far-fetched notion because Hong Kong can manage any risk given the sheer size of its income.

Hong Kong’s property and stock markets are again having a bull run this year and as long as the rule of law is upheld and proprietorship is protected, the homes and stocks bonanza will go on. And so will the government’s revenue windfall.

Those elites like Lam who worship the gospels of a free economy must also acknowledge the plain truth that if the government can take better care of the rank and file and put a roof above their heads, fewer people will take to the streets, even when Beijing tightens its rein.

Lam only has five years to prove to Beijing her ability to maintain stability and foster reconciliation, and for her own sake she must also win people’s hearts, as social harmony has always been one of Beijing’s aspirations for the city.

Investing in livelihood issues makes people happy and in turn helps assuage and heal the rift: a looser public purse for a less politically charged Hong Kong.

Beijing will surely reward Lam if she can achieve the easy task.

This article is an excerpt of two separate columns that appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 12 and 13.

Translation by Frank Chen with additional reporting

[Chinese version 1, 2 中文版]

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A famous Hong Kong writer; founder of the Hong Kong Economic Journal