How Carrie Lam can be the heroine to fix Hong Kong’s social ills
Growing discontent among middle class in Asian financial hub can be addressed if new leader makes brave decisions on housing crisis and pension funds
Perhaps the most important point to make about Sunday’s scripted chief executive election in Hong Kong is that there were more police deployed on the city’s streets to deal with angry protesters than there were electors calmly casting votes at the Convention and Exhibition Center in Wan Chai.
In the end, nearly two-thirds (777) of the 1,194-member Election Committee – faithfully following the marching orders written by Beijing – voted to make former chief secretary for administration Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor Hong Kong’s fourth leader since the handover from British rule in 1997. Her win denied the bid of her much more popular rival, erstwhile finance chief John Tsang Chun-wah, as well as that of the third-place finisher, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing.
Meanwhile, hundreds of demonstrators unhappy with the small-circle nature of the election converged on the Convention Center, some of them later making the five-kilometer trek to the central government’s liaison office, now the center of power in Hong Kong, to voice their dissatisfaction with the preordained result. A contingent of 1,800 police officers had no trouble keeping them at bay.
It was a vote and a day that reconfirmed Beijing’s tightening hold on a defiant city whose intense political, social and economic divisions threaten to get worse under the administration of a new chief executive who lacks a popular mandate and appears likely to carry on with the same failed governing philosophy and policies of the widely reviled outgoing incumbent leader, Leung Chun-ying.
Although Leung claimed that he chose not to stand for reelection so as to spend more time with his family, it is widely presumed that, in light of his dismal popularity ratings, the Chinese leadership in Beijing asked him to step aside for Lam.
Now Lam will begin her five-year term on July 1, suffering under the perception that she is nothing more than a Leung surrogate whose first allegiance is to the powers that be in Beijing rather than to the 7.3 million people who live in Hong Kong.
Unless she can demonstrate a degree of independence from central authorities and take bold measures that substantially improve the lives of ordinary folk who are more interested in livelihood issues than political football, Hong Kong’s deep-seated problems will only worsen under her leadership.
First and foremost, there is the housing crisis to confront. The problem is not just that a majority of Hong Kongers now cannot afford to purchase their own home; they also cannot envision a future in which that is even a possibility for them or for their children.
Prices offered by Sun Hung Kai Properties (SHKP) during its recent launch of apartments at the firm’s Cullinan West development aptly serve to illustrate the point: The asking price for the smallest, 270-square-foot unit was HK$7.94 million (more than US$1 million); the largest, at 1,503 square feet, was going for HK$48.38 million (US$6.2 million).
Prices like these are simply out of reach for all but a relative few. And so many people queue up for public housing – for which, if they qualify, there is an average waiting time of almost five years – or they rent shoddy, overpriced shoe-box flats or a segment (also overpriced) of a larger unit that has been illegally subdivided by a greedy landlord who often shows no regard for fire regulations.
It’s little wonder that such living arrangements breed anger and resentment that have political repercussions, especially when the Hong Kong government, which controls land sales, could make the city a far more livable place in one fell swoop by levying a heavy tax on any person or entity found to be hoarding land – standard practice among the city’s big developers to limit demand and drive up prices – and by releasing more land for sale.
These measures would result in a substantial drop in property prices. They would also, however, completely overturn the established order of guaranteed massive profits for developers like SHKP and so be resisted tooth and nail by tycoons who struck a devil’s bargain with Beijing at the handover that allows them to keep filling their coffers to the brim as long as they pay obeisance to the Communist Party. That unspoken loyalty oath includes, by the way, supporting the party’s preferred candidate to be Hong Kong’s next leader.
Every Hong Kong chief executive since the handover has pledged to make housing more available and affordable for ordinary people, yet the city’s housing crunch only gets worse.
As a longtime civil servant and political leader who served as development secretary and director of the Social Welfare Department before being appointed chief secretary, Lam fully understands the problem and could make the difference.
But, caught in a complicated web of diktats from Beijing and special interests in Hong Kong, she almost certainly will not choose to take on this battle, much as it would be appreciated by the people of Hong Kong.
Universal pension fund
If taking on the city’s tycoon class is too far to go for the new leader, here is another head-turning, heart-changing move she could make that would immediately transform her from villain to hero among most locals: How about tapping into Hong Kong’s massive fiscal reserves to create a viable universal pension fund in a rich city where, according to government figures, one in three elderly people live in poverty?
Hong Kong is sitting on HK$935.7 billion (US$120.6 billion) in fiscal reserves for which it has no particular plan. This huge stockpile of cash has been passively managed for the past nine years by Lam’s chief rival in the small-circle chief executive election, former financial secretary Tsang – who, like some biblical miser, has done nothing but sit on it and watch it grow as hunch-backed elderly women trudge through the back alleys of the city gathering cardboard, cans and plastic bottles in exchange for minuscule compensation for their contribution to recycling.
It would be a splendid irony if the unpopular Lam turned out to be the one who made the big decisions that finally healed the growing economic and social rifts in Hong Kong. If that were to happen, politics would be rendered a mere afterthought and resistance to Beijing’s authority minimized.
Unfortunately, that’s not how paranoid officials in Beijing, obsessed with control and obedience, see things in Hong Kong. Let’s see where that gets them over the next five years.