Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu completed his first 100 days in office on Saturday. It might seem a little harsh to start judging his performance so soon, but it is a tough job and as we all know, time and tide wait for no man. He has had time to get his feet under the desk, so it is not unreasonable to make an assessment of the efforts to date. He still has over 1700 days remaining in his first term so there is ample opportunity to correct any areas of weakness.
The first big decision to come his way concerned the annual civil service pay adjustment. The Pay Trend Survey Committee had performed its usual study and reported increases in the private sector ranging from just over two per cent for junior staff to more than seven for senior officers. The results were very controversial: civil servants felt they had done a good job during the pandemic and were looking forward to an increase, but the private sector was aghast. Given the economic environment, the normally supportive General Chamber of Commerce spoke out strongly against. For reasons still not entirely clear the previous administration sat on the issue for several weeks and then ducked a decision.
Lee quickly resolved the matter with a common sense 2.5 per cent across the board increase. This proved to be a useful precedent for dealing with domestic helper pay later.
But it is in the context of Covid policy that the present government has had most impact. Within days of taking office, the flight suspension mechanism was scrapped. Why it was ever introduced, and how it lingered so long, are mysteries to this day. In one fell swoop a system that produced such unreasonable outcomes was gone. The dismal daily press briefings have also disappeared.
Most dramatic have been the changes to quarantine arrangements. Seven days in a quarantine hotel was first cut to three plus a further four days of medical surveillance and is now down to zero plus three. These improvements have been widely welcomed by the local community. People now feel free to travel for the first time in nearly three years without onerous and expensive quarantine requirements on return.
Lee clearly means to show that Hong Kong is on the comeback trail. Hence his talking up of two events scheduled for early November, The Global Financial Forum and the Rugby Sevens. Later will come the HK Golf Open. It is vital for the future of Hong Kong’s economy that these are all highly successful, tangible proof that our city is open again. We have already lost too many events from the 2022 calendar – Trailwalker, World Dragon Boat Race, HK Marathon (now tentatively rescheduled for next year) etc. It has been great to see the world’s top snooker players in town this past week. But the group photo, with Ronnie O’Sullivan and other top stars all wearing masks, is a picture that has gone around the world. The message it sends is mixed at best.
We must not see the same photo of the crowd coming out of the Stadium in four weeks’ time, but if the rules stay as they are, that is what we will get. And the Forum dinner will require 200 senior business leaders to submit their RATs. The contrast with our competitors, especially Singapore, will be too painful. While tens of thousands of the Lion City’s maskless fans were welcoming the return of Formula One, hundreds of Hong Kong’s masked football supporters had to make do with a match against Myanmar.
So all eyes are turning to the Policy Address next week. Lee has been bold up to now and made substantive changes that have won him support from the local community. The question is whether he will be similarly bold in the next phase of opening up, sufficiently to attract tourists, the technology talent we need, and the businessmen and investors who can get our economy humming again. After all, they do not compare Hong Kong now with where it was a few months ago. They compare us now with where our rivals are now. Our competitors, with the sole exception of Shanghai, have all opened up.
Because we have become used to the regulations, we sometimes lose sight of just how restrictive they must seem to persons outside the SAR. Apart from post arrival health monitoring and masks, we have a stringent testing regime, controls on the size of outdoor gatherings, requirement to register entry to all manner of premises, and vulnerability to sudden testing of whole buildings. Many other places had no such arrangements and those that did have scrapped them.
The other big issue facing Lee in the Policy Address will be housing. We all know far more needs to be done in terms of flat production, especially for public rental purposes. It is obvious to most people that the best comprehensive solution is accelerated development of the Northern Metropolis because that is the only location with enough land to address the problem in its entirety. Moreover, it fits well with the idea of closer cooperation with Shenzhen in technology.
But some still cling to the idea that it would be better to cut the heart out of our world class golf course at Fanling. They are trying to imply that only by standing up against the better off can the government show it is serious about ending the scandals of subdivided flats and micro apartments. It is a false argument and Lee should reject it.
Overall I am inclined to give our chief executive a B for his efforts up to now. A lower mark would be overly critical, a higher one not yet justified. Partly the B is aspirational: “Strong start with room for further development”. We need Lee to shoot for an A next week.