It is hard to pick sides in the ‘war of words’ between property-tycoon-by-birth and jester Ronnie Chan and ‘big sinner’ Financial Secretary John Tsang. Well, OK – it’s not.
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…
The whole administration — a revealing word in itself — is trapped in colonial-era thinking. The strength and weakness of the civil service lies in its efficiency and conservatism within very narrow parameters. Actually a government can manage quite well for a fair while by doing very little, just coasting, especially if you compare with other places in E Asia.
But HK is built on a hypocritical observation of visible rectitude hiding a many-times-larger substructure of lawlessness. Tom Holland yesterday brilliantly showed that for the “industrial” sector of the property market. Anyone visiting a NT village will similarly realise that the emperor is so far away as to be non-existent.
Plenty of countries manage a precarious balancing act quite well for a generation or two. But how they manage the inevitable radical social, political and economic changes is the true test of strength.
I have no trouble disliking Ronnie Chan or John Walrusface.
The Civil Service and the Plutocrats are two cheeks of the same backside – never here, overpaid, out of touch and in very bad physical shape. In their brief moments away from complimentary hors d’oeuvres in airport lounges and in actual atmospheric air, they do have moments of lovable absurdity. But then so did all the tyrants.
You can always laugh at them as they are flushed away. Pull the string, as Bela Lugosi so famously said:
Hong Kong doesn’t have a Government it just has a some nervous bureaucrats jealously hoarding huge reserves as there is no policy in place. Except, as you say, pouring unnecessary concrete – cruise ship hub, West Kowloon cultural whatever hub etc. This was fine back in Colonial times as there was a need for concrete – Airport Project (Rose Garden) being probably the best example of both infrastructural and political need of the time.
Expectations were different back then remember people used to admire Li Ka Shing – FFS! But Walrus and his ilk carry on as if it still is the roaring ‘90’s cocooned his make believe world with his enormous salary, overly generous pension and looking forward to a retirement of gongs, mainland committees and directorships with property developers.
I see no change until the Chief Executive Carrie Lam takes over in 2017 (woops presumptuous of me)
PD – you do a grave disservice to the colonial administration, which actually undertook and based its long term policy on something called ‘strategic planning’.
The current lot can’t see further than their impending retirements, so it’s far more preferable for them to waddle around in circles without making any meaningful decisions for a couple of years before collecting their hefty lump sums and pensions and retiring to Mid-Levels apartments purchased for peanuts in the late 80s/early 90s or a gated community in Guangdong. Wah, that was a bloody long sentence!
Another very perceptive blog.Many thanks Hemmers
I see that the SCMP’s daily opinion poll for on-line readers took a vote on this today and at the last count 88% of HK agree with you.
Oik, Point taken. I should clarify that I meant the current “government” is behaving like the pre-1997 administration or civil service, a neutral body responsible for roads, prisons, schools, etc.
What was present then, perhaps ultimately stemming from the colonial status, and is absent now, is a vision, a longer perspective, common sense, emotional intelligence, political nous — all the ineffable qualities that define good governance.
Abraham Shek-Razak to be CE after C Y Leung
Can someone tell me why Carrie Lam is any better?
Leung started off with good intentions and seems to have been sidetracked by lack of political experience and poor ministerial choices.
Remember that Tsang’s handouts were designed to help a small clientele of tycoons. Do I see any cash from the govt for electricity? No, I just see encouragement to use more electricity at govt/tycoon colluded prices and a line item stating that CLP has received a monthly cash stipend from John Tsang in my name. Don’t even get my name scrolled at the bottom of some cheesy benefit show on Jade. And none of that cash is going to Ronnie Chan.
Business tax cuts and fee cuts are designed so businesses have a bit more money to afford exorbitant commercial rents. One look at http://www.hanglung.com/en/hong-kong-properties/commerical-and-retail.aspx and you’ll see why Ronnie Chan isn’t happy about those measures. (yes, the URL spells it as commerical )
And now with the threat of the days of double-digit M2 & M3 cash growth on the mainland coming to an end, I can see why all Ronnie Chan is left with is thrashing about looking for someone to blame for developing a business plan that didn’t get the government favours his competitors got.
John Tsang is no doubt a clueless clown, but he and other FS’s may be hamstrung to an extent by Beijing for all we know. There was a pathological mainland obsession with HK’s reserves while the British were building the new airport, and at times prior to the handover it seemed that Beijing wanted to get possible access to the pot of gold as much as physically reclaim the territory.
It may just be that all post-1997 HK governments are tasked by their masters with keeping the piggy-bank stuffed to capacity, so that the friendly mandarins from Up North can dip into it on an appropriately rainy day. How dare we think it’s our money…
Senior colonial administrators also knew they’d be sailing off on the Canberra after retirement, so no need to grease greedy palms for future kickbacks. Except for Aching Bones, I suppose.
Abraham Razak’s soul lies in a fur-lined lead box in the basement vault of Cheung Kong Centre.
what news of the Donald?
Ironic that the pro-Beijing forces (there must be a better name for them that that) keep harping on about the sacredness of the Basic Law but seem to forget that it mandates a balanced budget. When did we last have one of those?
Seem he has vanished into oblivion, no longer ‘the’ donald, just another dick … sorry duck-that-was
As a sidenote, Aching Bones is a bigger cunt than John Tsang