Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung’s maiden policy address, with the focus on housing. Democratic Party leader Emily Lau’s immediate reaction yesterday was to do her apoplectic freak-out act, but by this morning she had calmed down enough to grudgingly concede on the radio that maybe the plans to reduce air pollution and increase the supply of homes were not totally abhorrent. Still, she grumbled, the CE utterly failed to announce any plans to deport Beijing’s local Liaison Office’s entire staff or introduce universal suffrage next week, so on balance it was awful.
It depends on whether you are a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full person. If you want serious Thatcherite radical reform, you can’t help but be dismayed. CY did hint at edginess when he said he might be willing to do things even though – gasp – there wasn’t a complete consensus, which prompted a critical question from a Western reporter who is presumably a big fan of harmony. But threats to crush the Heung Yee Kuk, promises to bury the property cartel and warnings to stamp on Nimby-ist neighbourhoods opposing public housing projects and columbaria there were none. Unfortunately. But that of course is how Beijing wants it, let alone how our dysfunctional political structure requires it.
On the brighter side, the policy address was a departure from the flaccid and vacuous junk we had to endure under CY’s predecessor, Donald Tsang. Sir Bow-Tie refused to believe that air pollution was a problem, or indeed even existed, let alone allow a dollop of the government’s vast hoard of wealth be used to phase out old dirty vehicles. As for housing, the last administration was basically against it in principle, unless it cost over HK$15 million and was sold to Mainlanders at a big profit for Donald’s property cartel buddies.
Although they never precisely spelt it out, Donald Tsang and his tycoon-bureaucrat establishment adhered to a traditional colonial, not to say Dickensian, philosophy towards slums and their inhabitants. People shouldn’t have come to live here if they couldn’t afford it, and if they live in illegal and dangerous conditions, the obvious solution is eviction.
CY talked about substandard housing, and described seeing it in person. Long Hair Leung Kwok-heung chose this moment in the address, just when CY came closest to showing some sort of emotion, to create a fuss and get thrown out of the Legislative Council chamber. Or at least that’s how it appeared. Those of us with nasty, sordid little minds might wonder whether Long Hair fell into a trap here. It was CY-supporting lawmaker Ma Fung-kwok who chose the moment to snitch on the Trotskyist radical for being noisy, enabling CY to rewind the tape on his speech and repeat the tragic, heart-rending bits about the kid in Shamshuipo sleeping in a box hanging from the ceiling. Either way, Long Hair didn’t come out of it looking especially good.
The last government perversely kept land supply tight, as if delivering higher and higher profit margins to developers was all that mattered. (In fairness, some of them might have realized that they had overdone it but then got spooked by the prospect of triggering a market crash.)
CY listed a lengthy array of sites and possible sites, including something called ‘artificial islands’, on which hundreds and hundreds of hectares of land could be devoted to building a low six-figure number of new homes over a timeframe that people under 40 might even live to see. The word that springs to mind is ‘notional’. Even for a Monaco-type refuge for hot dirty money at a time of negative real interest rates, Hong Kong’s property prices look really stupid. When the crash comes, the private-sector part of the problem will to some extent fix itself, what with 200,000 apartments sitting empty and all that. In practice, much of the new development will probably be various forms of social housing. Interestingly, with a Margaret Thatcher-style gleam in his eye, CY hinted at getting tough on people who sublet or otherwise abuse public housing privileges – an area where previous administrations haven’t dared to tread.
The health care and elderly welfare proposals were in a similar vein: timid if you want big change and a universal pension right now, but serious-if-prudent compared with anything Sir Bow-Tie (or presumably Henry Tang) would have produced. The blather about CEPA and Pearl River Delta cooperation/partnership/blah blah was the usual stuff. CY’s decision to establish committees and councils for various things, including financial services development, looked lame, as if someone said “this is a policy address – you have to set up new councils.” Donald Tsang created new committees every day, purely so he could appoint shoe-shiners to them as some sort of badge of honour (and gratuitously not appoint detractors, so they would go off into a corner to cry and feel miserable). Pan-dems sneered that CY, too, would pack these new bodies with his friends. They forget that he doesn’t have any. The policy address won’t change that, but it wasn’t supposed to. At worst, in five years’ time we should at least be able to breathe the air – and when could we last say that?