The Standard’s ‘Mary Ma’ editorial comes up with snarky comments about the Central Policy Unit, calling them ‘slickers’. (The word can mean cheats or swindlers as well as sophisticates, but it is probably an allusion to their high salaries. Or maybe it’s a typo; I read it as ‘slackers’ at first glance.)
The column is the voice of the property tycoon/bureaucrat/Henry Tang/Donald Tsang nexus that was supposed to go on running Hong Kong after mid-2012, but as it happens didn’t. The Central Policy Unit has been through some personnel reshuffles since incoming Chief Executive CY Leung assumed power last July. The new boss, Shiu Sin-por, was former head of the One Country Two Systems Research Institute, to which CY has long been close.
In colonial times the CPU did low-profile but by all accounts serious policy research. Today, its reports tend to affirm existing policy approaches, mostly on uncontroversial social and demographic issues or politically correct cross-border economic matters. The Standard’s complaint is that the Unit wants to boost staff numbers – the new members, it goes without saying, to be hired on the usual other-worldly Hong Kong public-sector salaries. But the commentary also describes the evolution of the CPU into a shadow official PR agency with several particular roles.
One is to bolster government publicity efforts in favour of its own policies – most recently the proposed means-tested hike in elderly allowances. These TV and radio spots anger opposition legislators by casting their stance in a bad light and rousing public opprobrium against them. Given the mess we have for a political system, it is no wonder the government sees a need to speak directly to the population, though as propaganda the ads are lame and probably as self-defeating as the pro-democrats’ own refusal to cooperate with the Leung administration on principle.
Perhaps more interesting, as part of its supposed function of monitoring public opinion, the Unit is following Internet discussions – presumably to find out what the city’s youth are thinking. It is easy to deride this sort of work, or portray it as something sinister. But it looks like exactly the sort of thing our officials haven’t bothered doing in the past. Accurate (rather than filtered) reports of what the citizens out there are saying won’t automatically make policymaking less clueless, but it can’t hurt.
Another area is a longstanding job: helping to draft the CE’s Policy Address and other big announcements. The Standard, accusing the CPU of being too expensive, could have pointed out the insipid nature of past Policy Addresses, but of course didn’t.
Finally, we learn that the CPU is responsible for ‘recruiting talent … for all government advisory bodies’. To former CE Donald Tsang, these appointments were treated as pats on the head for shoe-shiners. Our favourite was Bunny Chan, who seems to sit on every committee going. Will a new generation of wolf-admiring stooges now start to replace Sir Bow-Tie’s choices when these old sycophants hop off?
More to the point, will the advisory boards continue their traditional role of maintaining a thoroughly pathetic pretense that the government listens to the public? Or will they play a less passive PR role for the government and perhaps start publicly urging official action or policy measures that – it just so happens – opposition lawmakers won’t like? Pick the right sort of members for them (and you could do worse than just picking names like courts do for juries) and the tired, stale old boards could take on a new life as suitably suggestible and credible weapons in the government’s fight against its widespread detractors. Another reason, ‘Mary Ma’ would say, not to increase the CPU budget.
Across the page: this is becoming a mental health issue. Following government measures to calm the Hong Kong residential property market, investors with a staggering paucity of imagination – maybe it’s the financial equivalent of obsessive-compulsive disorder – are piling into vehicle parking spaces. The Standard report mentions 80-square-foot spaces going for over HK$1 million and notes that the major developers are now selling the car parks attached to their new projects, whereas normally they would rent them out.
You would have thought this last point would tell us all we need to know about the wisdom of buying the little oblong bits of concrete at these prices. The families behind the city’s property cartel invest their fortunes in Australian infrastructure, British ports, Asian hotels, Canadian energy and no doubt an extensive range of international equities and much else. For Hong Kong’s unoriginal middle class, the universe of possible asset classes begins and ends with local real estate.