September 1, 2022
HONG KONG – Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu has conducted several consultation sessions to listen to the views and suggestions of the public for his upcoming first Policy Address, promising he will scrutinize the voice of each social stratum and respond to their demands.
Now that the previously toxic political environment has gone, with most — if not all — political roadblocks having been removed following the political reforms of the past two years, the new governing team of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region should brace for much higher expectations of the populace for its performance as well as for Lee’s first Policy Address.
To make an analogy, if “60” is the passing score for the previous administrations, the new administration will have to get a “75” to pass the exam. The disruptions caused by politicization in the past, especially the unrestrained filibustering that torpedoed the relationship between the executive branch and the legislature, considerably undermined the HKSAR government’s ability to address socioeconomic problems. Now that peace and stability are restored, it makes sense that the Lee administration will need to meet greater expectations of both the central government and the general populace of Hong Kong in its governance performance.
How successful Lee’s first Policy Address will be seen to be by the public lies on the extent to which it will mitigate residents’ woes.
Thanks to the previous “positive nonintervention” governing philosophy as well as the political roadblocks set up by the opposition, the city has accrued quite a few deep-seated problems, such as a severe housing shortage, a widening wealth gap and stagnant upward social mobility for the youth. These major problems have been aggravated by the unending COVID-19 pandemic. The forthcoming Policy Address will need to prioritize the most pressing livelihood issues to ease people’s grievances. As far as I am concerned, there are three major issues that are expected to be tackled in Lee’s first Policy Address.
The people of Hong Kong hope for a turning point in governance, so that social injustice and abnormalities caused by market failure can be rectified in time, providing the general populace, especially the lower class and the grassroots, with more opportunities to improve their lives
First, no efforts should be spared in facilitating the resumption of quarantine-free travel between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. The restricted access between the two sides has been in place for more than two years, hindering cross-boundary economic interaction as well as other interaction. While it has been relaxed recently, the actual demand for cross-boundary travel far exceeds the daily quota for cross-boundary travelers. As the new school year will soon begin, some northbound cross-boundary students and their parents are anxious about their ability to register with their schools on time.
Second, strong measures must be adopted to improve the unemployment situation, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic and the stringent quarantine regime. Tourism, retail, hotel, catering and transportation are among the hardest-hit sectors, and as many business operations have shrunk or even closed down, lots of breadwinners have lost a portion or all of their income. These affected individuals are looking to the Lee administration to promote employment.
Third, there is no doubt Hong Kong residents have high hopes for meaningful solutions to the longstanding problem of the housing shortage and poor living conditions. The queue for public housing only gets longer as time progresses, reaching more than six years as of now. This has become unbearable for the 200,000-plus residents living in subdivided flats or “cage homes”. The housing issue has worsened to the point that both the central authorities and the Hong Kong community are keeping a close eye on it. Therefore, the people of Hong Kong conceivably look forward to proposals that can efficaciously increase the supply of both private and public housing.
Resolving these pressing livelihood issues will win the hearts of the people. The new governing team should demonstrate a determination to cut the Gordian knot by introducing big strategic moves in the Policy Address.
If wealth disparity reaches the extent that it causes class solidification or rigidity, most members of society will see little hope of moving up the social ladder through personal endeavors. Losing motivation to make a better future will ultimately result in people “lying flat”, or ceasing to work hard. Such a phenomenon is already budding in Hong Kong as the younger generation finds it difficult to get a decent job, or start a business, or buy an apartment. If upward social mobility is out of the question, their grievances will only grow stronger day by day.
With the National Security Law for Hong Kong and the revamped electoral system in place, Hong Kong has ushered in a golden age of genuine executive-led governance. Lee and his administration are believed to enjoy the greatest power and influence among their predecessors. The people of Hong Kong hope for a turning point in governance, so that social injustice and abnormalities caused by market failure can be rectified in time, providing the general populace, especially the lower class and the grassroots, with more opportunities to improve their lives.
For instance, the government has launched programs to encourage young people to start their own businesses in Qianhai, Shenzhen; surely it can also promote entrepreneurship in Hong Kong. On the other hand, as the current administration has also rolled out relief measures like the setup of a task force led by the chief secretary for administration to lift underprivileged students out of intergenerational poverty, it can work on how to replicate this strategy and apply it to other social issues. Furthermore, the government should look into ways to fix the defects in the city’s elderly-care centers, which were ruthlessly exposed by the pandemic onslaughts. Social issues like these are of keen interest to the public.
Judging from global experience, there are invariably three ways to narrow the wealth gap: raising the wages of low-income groups, lowering the earnings of high-income groups via taxation and other means, and expanding the middle-income group. If Hong Kong wishes to tackle the problem at the root, it needs to run these three measures in parallel, and they shall be much-anticipated items in the forthcoming Policy Address.
The Lantau Tomorrow Vision project put forward by the previous administration in 2018 caused heated debate over its huge investment. Residents generally believe that the mega land development project, which will take several decades to complete, is too far off to satisfy the current pressing demands. Their concern is not unjustified. Indeed, to properly address the longstanding housing shortage, the government will need to strike a balance between the long-term, medium-term, and short-term goals. While a clear vision is essential, there should be initiatives to produce visible and tangible results in the near term. One cannot just draft an ambitious plan and simply hand it over to one’s successors to execute.
Lee has promoted a “results-oriented” governing philosophy in his election manifesto. The upcoming Policy Address will be a showcase of how ready he and his team are in carrying out this philosophy.