This being barely mid-May, it is too early to draw up a shortlist for the 2011 Top 10 Dimwitted Government Ideas of the Year Award, but it is a fair bet that when the time comes the Community Care Fund will figure prominently. From the day Chief Executive Donald Tsang proposed it in his 2010 Policy Address, the whole notion of a parallel welfare programme jointly paid for by the government and Hong Kong’s biggest conglomerates invited derision and suspicion. Was it designed to make the increasingly unpopular tycoons look good? Was it intended to further tighten the grip of the plutocrats over the administration?
The city has no shortage of either welfare structures or cash. We have: a Comprehensive Social Security Assistance system, which the government has ample resources to extend if necessary; a charity umbrella called the Community Chest with long experience of distributing donations to good causes; a constant flow of cash to community projects from the Jockey Club; and much more, not least tycoon Li Ka-shing’s fun ‘Love Ideas, Love HK’ campaign, which possibly inspired Sir Bow-Tie to propose a more top-down, bureaucratic and drab version of his own. There were already plenty of ways to fill gaps in welfare provision, so the obvious explanation for the CCF was that it was yet another instrument of government-business collusion.
Yet it soon became apparent that Donald had an agenda of his own here. He made Chief Secretary Henry Tang CCF chairman, giving his likely successor a possible badly needed profile-boost. Inevitably, he packed the CCF steering committee with his usual cronies, from Bunny Chan SBS JP to Anthony Wu GBS JP. It became clear that he wanted to sideline the existing welfare agencies and deliver the goodies to the deserving disadvantaged directly, under CCF branding. The idea is to make Donald and his pitiful administration look good; the contributions from the tycoons are needed simply to make the whole thing look sufficiently non-governmental to enable Sir Bow-Tie & Co to have their own little private welfare system to run and generate public acclaim in which they can bask.
But the tycoons seem reluctant to play along, so far pledging only HK$1.8 billion, and handing over just HK$680 million, of the HK$5 billion envisaged to match the injection of public funds. The Standard quotes the Liberal Party’s James Tien as saying the corporate donors would prefer a say on where the money goes, feel government should plug holes in welfare provision through its usual channels, and dislike the idea of being ‘double-taxed’. In short, they are unhappy because it isn’t collusion – at least not the sort they usually take for granted, in which the executive transfers public wealth to them on a plate. Here, they are being expected to pass (possibly imaginary) opportunities to look noble to an unimaginative, failed government leadership. It’s not often they pass over an opportunity to shoe-shine, even if it is a lame-duck administration, but as men of principle they’re damned if they’re going to fund a PR stunt for Donald.
In theory the CCF could be embarrassingly killed off at birth this Friday when the Legislative Council Finance Committee votes on the government’s request for HK$5 billion (plus 10 full-time staff if you please). But unless the pro-tycoon Liberals have the guts to vote no rather than abstain – which they don’t – the rest of the obedient pro-government/pro-Beijing lawmakers, plus probably some pro-democrats who want to see the money in the slums, will pass it. So it should be a safe bet for coming in at number three or four in the Top 10.