The mood on the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning is one of mild bemusement as Hong Kong’s industrious and clean-living middle class absorb the latest news about the government’s increasingly complex and laborious efforts to give us all HK$6,000 each to spend on candy. After months of agonizing effort, officials have produced a schedule, stretching out into the distant future – into an era when the concept of money as we understand it may no longer even have any meaning. They have drawn up a barely fathomable plan to release the money in stages to recipients according to age, starting with the oldest and moving down to younger cohorts at such a slow pace that even the current 18-24-year-olds will be occupying well-tended niches in multistory columbaria by the time their cheque is ready.
Over chicken congee in the fashionable and elegant surroundings of the Foreign Correspondents Club, I get the chance to quiz the equally fashionable and elegant Administrative Officer Winky Ip about this ill-fated handout.
“What you should do,” I tell her, “is give every immigration officer a big box of money under their desk. And then every time a permanent resident passes through the border entering or leaving Hong Kong, the officer can check the records to see if that person’s been paid yet. If they haven’t, they can lean down and hand over the cash and say, “Here you go, careful how you spend it.”
The sleek civil servant casts a wary eye over me. “Many of the elderly and less advantaged members of the community don’t travel overseas,” she says.
“They would if you did that,” I point out.
She pushes her bowl to one side and sighs. She fingers the Fendi Borsa Baguette bag sitting on the chair next to her, clearly wondering whether to hit me with it. “Let me explain the whole thing to you,” she finally says in her finest, it-took-months-of-training, condescending bureaucrat’s tone.
It is a lengthy public-administration saga. The whole principle of the government giving its personal wealth away, willy-nilly, to this bunch of 7 million complete strangers who happen to be hanging around all the time is, she stresses, totally without precedent. There are layers and layers of systemic and institutional protection against imprudent use of these valuable resources, right down to a giant three-headed dog guarding a dungeon somewhere beneath the West Wing of the government offices in Central. The weird HK$200 bonus for not spending the money is just a distraction, to make people think plans are well advanced.
“Look,” I break in, “why is it taking so long? In Macau and Singapore they just send the cash out, end of story.”
She grabs the handbag and I brace myself for a wack on the side of the head. Instead she opens it and pulls out a sheet of paper titled ‘Line to Take’. She reads from it. “It takes a relatively longer administrative process than places like Macau and Singapore because Hong Kong has more stringent rules on personal data privacy,” she announces. I am silenced. It took a few months to think up, but it sounds half-credible. Of course it helps that personal data privacy is one of those issues, like carbon offsets, that send you into almost instant slumber.
I am about to ask her whether our genius policymakers have considered the possibility that citizens will demand another HK$6,000 at the next budget in early 2012. Then it dawns on me: they’ll still be waiting for the first one.
What a brilliant way of managing people’s expectations. By the time the six grand turns up, it will be enough to buy a pack of gum with – less than the average bureaucrat’s Air Conditioning Allowance for one month – and we’ll all be dead anyway. The government’s very own, not-for-sharing never-ever wealth remains secure.