As always a few days before the Chief Executive’s annual policy address, the press is cluttered with irritating hints about what Donald Tsang will announce on Wednesday. Compliant and/or guileless newspapers report the leaked predictions largely without question or other comment, allowing the government’s amateurish spin-doctors to think they are expertly managing expectations.
The big prediction this time round is that the administration will tackle the problem of unaffordable housing by relaunching the subsidized Home Ownership Scheme. Specifically, the anonymous sources have been loudly insisting over the last week, it will start off with building 5,000 such apartments.
This could mean one of two things. Either Sir Bow-Tie is going to announce the construction of 5,000 HOS units. Or he will announce a larger number, say 8,000, which will shock, amaze and delight the population into ignoring the fact that either way such a measure is just a lottery to benefit a lucky few, leaving hundreds of thousands of people still unable to afford a halfway decent home.
However, something else seems to be afoot. The CE is now saying that he will break with tradition and introduce unconventional policies to tackle the problem. He is more or less admitting that the government made a mistake in its perverted determination to force property prices up over much of the last decade (why not force up the cost of other essential commodities like food, clothing or medicine while you’re at it?) Perhaps, also, Donald would like the history books to have something positive to say about him after his rags-to-glory career ends next year – though in all fairness, he did scrap half-day working on Saturdays.
Skeptics can be forgiven for having doubts: all feasible solutions to Hong Kong’s overinflated property prices ultimately require the government to accept less revenue from land sales and/or the developers to suffer lower profit margins. But it is hard to see why Donald would raise, rather than depress, hopes just before delivering his address.
Other critics might suggest that with a new administration taking over in mid-2012, he cannot do much even if he wants to – he can’t commit his successors to new long-term policies at this stage. But this misunderstands the way Hong Kong is run. The transition next year, insofar as there is one, will be seamless; it has already started with the elevation of Stephen Lam from Constitutional Affairs to the Chief Secretary’s office vacated by Henry Tang ahead of the Chief Executive quasi-election campaign. The same people will be running the city behind the scenes: senior civil servants, desperate to balance the interests of ‘various sectors’ (half for the tycoons, half for everyone else) and avoid criticism from Beijing.
That doesn’t mean Donald is about to unveil anything large-scale. But it does look like he’s going to set a new precedent and break with some aspect of the old way of doing things; it could be the land-revenue link, planning rules, or whatever. Ideally, he would find a way of reserving more space for people who want homes to live in rather than for those who crave concrete boxes as an investment. It might be something mainly symbolic or completely stupid – it doesn’t matter. The point is that it would take the wind out of CE-aspirant CY Leung, who has radical ideas about this very subject. Henry could endorse the wonderful new approach and promise to continue with it as CE. The rest of us would dance in the streets with joy. Then, just as the new policy kicks in, Europe finally goes bankrupt and the market crashes anyway.