Is it too early to be writing Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s obituary? The man does, after all, have another dozen days to go before handing over to sinister Wolf-Man populist unknown-quantity Spartan/Transylvanian/Tartar CY Leung – and the latter might, for all we know, have us all begging Sir Bow-Tie to come back, all is forgiven.
The Wall Street Journal decides ‘sure, why not?’ and starts off with a graphic swift kick in the pants. In fact, two…
Back around 2004-05, I distinctly recall voices of reason and sanity calling on the government to resume land sales, otherwise we’d end up with ballooning housing prices. Throughout Donald Tsang’s watch, even as low real interest rates and Mainland buyers put extra upward pressure on the property market, the government’s policy was inaction. Was it a deranged belief that ever-higher prices are good? A high-level decision to favour property developers’ interests over the community’s and economy’s? Or just plain stupidity?
He had the same do-nothing response to rising air pollution. Here we can be certain that the government’s inaction was due to a policy decision to boost poisons in the local atmosphere. As I understand it, Donald thinks our air is not quite of Scandinavian levels of purity, but like Barcelona’s, and this has left us with one of the world’s longest life expectancies, so we must boost air pollution in order to reverse the aging population problem. If you disagree, you oppose development and are a bad person who will go to Hell when you die. To speed that up, his administration watered down a law against idling vehicle engines to such an extent that it only applies to about 12 cars in the whole city. Something along those lines. Essentially it is pure malice: your kids’ lungs cannot be more important than concrete-pouring.
The WSJ could also have mentioned the wealth gap. Government statistics people have just released their latest data on household incomes, revealing that Hong Kong’s gini coefficient is down there almost with the Central African Republic and Bolivia. Officials protest at credibility-straining length that redistribution through taxes and welfare makes things far better. This might not, however, put us as neatly into the New York/London league as they would like.
The well-off here pay very low direct tax (10-15%) by US/UK standards, while the poor probably pay at least that much as a proportion of their wealth through the invisible quasi-sales tax that feeds through land sales into the cost of living. (We don’t know for sure, but all those fiscal and other reserves must have come from somewhere.) The transfers side of the equation is also murky. For example, some public housing is occupied by people rich enough to be property owners. Payers of salaries tax – the better-off half of the work force – get allowances through tax breaks for each kid and dependent parent, while the worse-off half of workers get no equivalent handout. This looks like subsidy of the rich by the poor.
What we can all agree on is that the situation has deteriorated in the last 15 years, and during the major and more recent part of that time, we were led by… Sir Donald.
The sleazy private jet and luxury yacht trips were a smart PR move, making it less likely that we will remember Donald primarily for chucking several hundred billion dollars away on pointless infrastructure projects, hoarding hundreds of billions more in the reserves, the continued inadequacy of large parts of the school system, deliberate under-funding of hospitals, the gut-wrenchingly awful annual budgets, plus all the planning horrors, tycoon-coddling, cronyism and sheer jumped-up, arrogant, contemptuous snottiness.
On the brighter side, we have a minimum wage and competition law for those who like that sort of thing, though the latter in particular looks like a waste of paper. If you ask Donald (in private at least) what he is most proud of, it would be the constitutional reform breakthrough that led to the Democratic Party sitting down with Beijing officials and agreeing on the directly elected District Council Functional Constituency seats for this year’s Legislative Council election. It was a pretty impressive achievement in terms of pure principle. Sadly, you can’t live in, breathe or eat unprecedented talks between sworn enemies or the slightly less-rigged nature of elections they produce.
In his defence, he could point out that as a British-trained bureaucrat from the 1970s, he was bound to be a hopeless, out-of-his-depth, unimaginative idiot in the top job, and it’s ultimately Beijing’s fault for being so paranoid that it won’t trust better people to be in power in Hong Kong. In fact, I will email that very sentence to him so he can learn it off by heart and reel it off at cocktail parties and in interviews after he retires.
Epitaphs have to be positive; fortunately, they don’t need to be lengthy. Donald Tsang, 2005-2012: He wasn’t Tung Chee-hwa and we don’t have to work Saturday mornings any more.