What Carrie Lam didn't address in her policy speech

October 11, 2018 09:00
Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam focused on livelihood problems in her latest policy address, while steering clear of political issues. Photo: Facebook

No one disagrees that Hong Kong's most urgent issue is the abysmal state of its housing. Even the opposition admits this although it insists the housing crisis doesn't give the government an excuse to ignore political reforms since both can be tackled simultaneously.

But Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor knows opinion polls consistently show people care more about an affordable roof over their heads, upward mobility, and other livelihood issues than democracy. That's why she used Wednesday's annual policy speech in the Legislative Council to play to the gallery rather than the politicians in the audience.

It's a smart political play that will likely give a temporary boost to her popularity. We have, after all, the world's most expensive housing market. Ordinary Hong Kong people can no longer afford to buy homes. Over a quarter million applicants are on the public housing waiting list. They must wait five years for a flat.

A quarter million people live in tiny subdivided slum units. Hong Kong has one of the widest wealth gaps in the developed world. Over 1.3 million people live below the poverty line. The combined mix of unaffordable housing and societal grievances is like a tinderbox that could suddenly ignite. Any political leader who promises fixes for such deep-rooted discontent is bound to see an uptick in popularity.

Lam focused on improving the lives of the people, reclaiming land for housing, scrapping the MPF offsetting mechanism, helping minorities, and instilling hope. It was a speech intended to burnish her image as a grassroots leader, something her predecessor Leung Chun-ying was unable to do even though he too had many populist policies.

Like most other Hong Kong people, I knew Lam would evade the toxic issue of political reforms, as she did in her maiden policy speech last year. But there was something aside from political reforms that she didn’t even touch on, something our top leaders both here and in Beijing need to address sooner or later.

How does the chief executive envision the long-term future of Hong Kong as a special administrative region? Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration that transferred sovereignty back to China, Hong Kong’s way of life and core values would be preserved for at least 50 years up to 2047. But the reality is Hong Kong has already undergone major changes since its reunification 21 years ago.

Every city changes as it modernizes, urbanizes, and grows. The Hong Kong of today is vastly different from that of 1997 when China regained sovereignty. Our city is almost unrecognizable compared to 21 years ago, with new buildings, rail links, roads, and other infrastructure. Hong Kong now has more millionaires than New York, the government has trillions of dollars in fiscal reserves, yet societal discontent remains a chronic problem.

The people’s aspirations have grown too. They want cleaner air, improved health care, better education facilities, and fairer rights for workers. They also want a bigger say in the governing of Hong Kong, which many people insist can only happen with so-called genuine democracy.

But those are not the changes I am talking about. I am talking about what long-term changes we can expect as we draw closer to 2047. Economic integration has become the new buzzword of local and mainland leaders. They use every opportunity to trumpet the benefits we can reap from merging with the mainland’s supersized economy. Lam again extolled this in her speech on Wednesday.

Integrating with the mainland’s economy is inevitable now that China is the world’s second largest economy. The Greater Bay Area, West Kowloon express rail, and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge were all conceived to dilute the border between Hong Kong and the mainland.

When the late Deng Xiaoping came up with one country, two systems in the late 1980s, he envisioned a backward China being more like Hong Kong after 50 years of reunification, not the reverse. Most people took the 50 years of no change to mean it would give China time to catch up with Hong Kong not only economically but also to become more like Hong Kong politically.

But it’s clear what Deng had in mind is no longer valid. China didn’t need 50 years to catch up with us economically. It needed less than half that time to surpass us in many areas. And it’s clear the current leadership in Beijing has no intention or desire to become more like Hong Kong’s politically free society. Many actually fear the current Beijing leadership’s intention is to gradually erode Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms so it would become more like the mainland.

They point to the banning of the Hong Kong National Party, the rejection of a work visa for a Financial Times correspondent who chaired a Foreign Correspondents’ Club talk by independence advocate Andy Chan Ho-tin, Beijing’s intolerance of even non-violent discussion of independence, the disqualification of six opposition legislators, and Beijing’s insistence that political reforms must include the screening of chief executive candidates as evidence the central government wants Hong Kong to be more like the mainland politically.

Now that economic integration with the mainland is on a fast track, will this also mean gradual political integration as we near 2047? Neither local nor mainland officials have discussed what their long-term vision of Hong Kong is. Some say it is too hypothetical to discuss since 2047 is still 29 years away.

But it is not as hypothetical as it seems. Beijing has repeatedly stressed that one country supersedes two systems. What struck me in her latest policy speech was that Lam talked up the importance of one country but gave cursory mention to two systems.

It is natural for Hong Kong to move closer to the mainland since it is part of the same country. But should political integration also accompany economic integration? Can a city that grew up on economic freedoms be gradually weaned away from what gives it life to something it considers alien? Yes, it’s a sensitive issue yet something that not only Hong Kong people but also mainland leaders need to start thinking about.

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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.