Why HK$10,000 isn’t good enough

June 24, 2020 08:54
Photo: RTHK

In these hard times, could there be easier money than this? You just do a few clicks of the mouse on your online bank account and -- voila! -- you’ll get HK$10,000 from the SAR government in three weeks’ time.

It doesn’t make me jump for joy, though.

We’ve long been envious at the good fortune of our neighbors in Macau, who have been receiving cash benefits from their government for years.

The last time we had such a windfall was way back in 2011, when the then financial chief John Tsang Chun-wah, under tremendous public pressure to draw some cash from Hong Kong’s overflowing reserves , gave away HK$6,000 to each adult permanent resident of the city.

It’s been four long months since Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po unveiled the latest cash handout in February.

As the city continues to reel from the impact of the social unrest last year and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the mood of the public is far from jubilant.

The government wants us to spend the money by eating out and buying consumer items to boost the local economy.

But the economic uncertainties are keeping many people from going on a spending spree. Besides, a friend of mine observes light-heartedly, the latest iPhone is not available yet, and it’s probably not even a 5G model. Some are thinking of going on a short leisure trip overseas, probably Bangkok or Tokyo, but the raging pandemic is preventing them from packing their bags.

Better to wait for Mark Six for a more substantial windfall? We haven’t had the lottery for months now, although it will probably reopen next month.

You could invest the cash in Tencent. But it’s probably better to buy when the stock price eases to the mid-HK$300s, and not at the high price level it stands at the moment. Ditto for Alibaba and Meituan Dianping, which together with Tencent make up the New Economy’s “ATM”, or even the newly listed JD.com and NetEase.

I find it hard to shake off the nagging suspicion that the release of the latest cash handout was carefully timed to ease the blow of the national security law that is being cooked up in Beijing for Hong Kong.

The law is expected to undermine the “one country, two systems” principle.

Sneak previews of the legislation coming out of state media indicate that Beijing will not only draw up its provisions but also have the power to interpret them and have the final say over its implementation.

While Western nations have condemned Beijing’s action on the national security law, the democratic movement in Hong Kong finds it hard to mobilize opposition to the legislation amid Covid-19 social distancing rules.

Despite the restrictions on mass gatherings, however, thousands of people gathered at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay on June 4 for the annual vigil to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Protests are also lined up for the anniversary of the handover on July 1.

There is no way the cash handout, no matter how generous, would make people forget the painful episodes of their fight against the now-withdrawn extradition bill, which ignited the protest movement against what is seen as Beijing’s efforts to curtail the city’s freedoms.

At best, some people see the HK$10,000 payout as a refund for the extra costs they had to pay for face masks, toilet rolls and rice at the height of the coronavirus-induced panic buying earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the cash handout here doesn’t directly target those who have been most affected by the social unrest and Covid-19, namely those who have lost their jobs.

Instead of the displaced workers, the government would rather pay corporates, such as Hong Kong Sanatorium & Hospital, which received HK$85.9 million from the government in the first phase of the Employment Support Scheme.

In total, some 25,500 companies with more than 200,000 employees from the airline, hotel, retail and dining sectors received a subsidy of HK$4.8 billion on the condition that they will retain their staff.

These hard-hit industries also stand to benefit from the latest cash handout, which is expected to unleash Hongkongers’ pent-up demand for goods and services. One indication that this is good news for the consumer sector is the huge turnout in restaurants and shops during Father’s Day -- a far cry from the rather tepid observance of this year’s Mother’s Day.

Amid the absence of mainland tourists, the government hopes that Hongkongers will use the windfall to support local businesses. Many restaurants plan to offer 30 percent discounts next month, followed by a 20 percent markdown in August, to encourage consumers to spend.

Still, the cash handout can only do so much amid the widespread disenchantment over Beijing’s tightening grip on Hong Kong.

It certainly won’t stop the people from fighting for the high degree of autonomy and judicial independence promised them under the Basic Law.

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EJ Insight writer