Hong Kong’s Chief Executive CY Leung finally unveils some interim measures to remind everyone that he is here to do a bit of people-oriented government. The mini-policy address he gave to the Legislative Council yesterday contained no radical reforms, but the handouts were more coherent than in the Financial Secretary’s average budget. If John Tsang released a Greatest Hits album it would be like this: only half a dozen tracks, competently done but not especially memorable.
The whole package is worth HK$7 billion – roughly 2 percent of this year’s government expenditure, or a tenth of last year’s budget surplus. Most of the money goes towards doubling the means-tested Old Age Allowance to HK$2,200 a month. To multi-millionaire lawmakers in the Civic Party, this might be a blatant and desperate attempt to divert everyone’s attention from CY’s trellis and carport roof, but for some 300,000 elderly poor getting by on HK$3,400 a month, it’s a major deal. (Such people can apply for basic CSSA welfare support, but are dissuaded by the system’s more rigorous (or humiliating) procedures.)
Medical vouchers that go to all elderly will double from HK$500 to HK$1,000 a year. With public hospital visits often free to poorer over-65s and much private health care costing megabucks, it’s hard to see what the old folk will spend the vouchers on, but they will no doubt find something.
A re-jigging of second-hand sales of subsidized housing and of public housing eligibility criteria gives a glimpse of the mess Hong Kong is in after years of a widening wealth gap and a surge in housing costs. It can be summed up with the Transport and Housing Secretary’s words, “Because we have to accommodate more people within public rental housing…” Why do we have to? Because we’re too petrified to even think about making private-sector housing more affordable.
The rest of the measures are to some extent gimmicky money-flinging, but are at least targeted in vaguely deserving directions.
The plan to provide 3,000 mini-units for up to five years in subsidized youth ‘hostels’ to below-35s earning less than HK$17,000 a month looks a bit silly; you don’t know whether to envy or pity the lucky winners of this lottery. Still, it is another reminder of what happens when you make private housing too expensive for most people to afford, and a credit to the makers of the King’s Cube video, whose satire must have played a role in this.
Also announced by the Home Affairs Secretary: HK$500 million for social enterprises’ micro-financing something-or-other, which sounds all very trendy. Such businesses strive to make a profit while serving a particular cause, like hiring disabled workers. In many cases, public subsidies make them viable because it means they can afford workspace – another reminder of land-policy failure.
It would have been nice to hear CY say something to make people think about what genuine reform could mean. For example: “If housing is expensive, people have less to spend on other things, and as a result we have fewer businesses and jobs. But if housing is cheaper, people have more money to spend on other things, which means more businesses can start up in different industries and provide more jobs. I would like everyone in the community to ask themselves which they think is the better course for Hong Kong to take.”
Maybe later. Maybe not.