Countless observers of all political and economic stripes have despaired of Tsang’s budgets – annual exercises in stashing away huge surpluses while distributing one-off handouts to this and that socio-economic group.
According to taste: he could have slashed taxes or other forms of revenue-raising; he could have used the surpluses as a buffer to engineer a painless transition to a more stable system of government finances; or he could have boosted redistribution of wealth and increased expenditure in underfunded areas like health care or welfare for the poor. He did nothing, except go through the same pointless motions year after year.
In this sense, he was the perfect accompaniment to then-Chief Executive and buddy, Donald Tsang. The whole 2006-2012 era was a waste, with no reforms, no ideology, and no policy other than chucking a few hundred billion away on pointless infrastructure projects.
John Tsang’s crowning moment of redundancy was in 2011. Faced with yet another huge (surprise!) surplus, he considered putting a lump sum in every working person’s Mandatory Provident Fund account. That provoked anger, so he ended up sending every permanent resident a cheque for HK$6,000, in addition to all the usual electricity/rates/public rent/etc rebates, which by then had become the norm. People still talk about the sheer pointlessness of the measure (based on a Macau policy to make that city’s docile population feel better about government corruption). He could have replaced every dirty diesel truck and bus; he could have cleared the public hospitals’ waiting lists of medical procedures; he could have put impoverished families in decent housing. The list goes on and on, and the best he could think of was hurling cash at everyone from tycoons downwards. Irate citizens pooled their handouts to help the disadvantaged.
As a token of its deep concern for Hong Kong, the Chinese government (by all accounts) insisted that the incoming administration of CY Leung keep Tsang on as Financial Secretary when it took over a year ago.
Ronnie Chan, the bumptious buffoon who’s too funny to dislike, sees Tsang as a populist who is leading Hong Kong down the path to European welfare, socialism and bankruptcy. He is being too kind: Tsang has no philosophy at all – no determination to lead Hong Kong’s fiscal system anywhere, except round and round in little circles, and then to smugly imagine, in the finest tradition of the Hong Kong Civil Service, that he has done an outstanding job.
Sadly, Tsang is hardly unique. The government is packed full of people who seem uncertain about why they are there and what they want to achieve. It brings us back to that uncomfortable feeling that the administration is staffed not by senior officials, but by more child-like souls playing at being grown-ups.
The good news is that he’s hardly ever here: I declare the weekend open with a riveting look at the latest press releases issued by John Tsang’s office…