Best Foot Forward
Our chief executive John Lee Ka-chiu has had a very busy first six months in office during which he has performed pretty well. But alas there can be no rest for him over Christmas as his 2023 plate already looks quite full even assuming no unforeseen emergencies. Here are some new year resolutions to help him navigate through the stormy waters.
Number one, stay focused like a laser on the economy. The government has plenty of exciting plans for the future to address our many areas of social need, in particular housing and the increased burden of an aging population. There are also imaginative proposals for the long-term development of our economy. These will bring great benefits when they come to fruition but will incur considerable costs in the short term. All such matters will be more easily handled by a growing economy whereas ours is in a recession which is likely to run into the early part of next year. We urgently need a quick turnround.
Number two, ensure all decisions on covid control measures are taken in their full context, not solely on the requirements of combatting a single disease. Protecting public health is of course an important priority, but it is not the only one. Other considerations also need to be brought to bear, not just the economy but also community morale and the educational and social development of our children. After three years of stringent social controls, and high levels of immunity achieved by vaccination, more weight should be given to these other factors. Even within health, guarding against possible deaths from covid needs to be balanced against certain increases in death from suicide, particularly among the young, or failure to treat other diseases.
Since his election, Lee has established a good record of easing up in this area (scrapping quarantine and use of LeaveHomeSafe, for example) but needs to maintain momentum and increase it wherever possible.
Number three, maintain the strength of our public finances. Our historical fiscal surpluses are what has distinguished Hong Kong from governments elsewhere. They have had to run up huge debts coping with the pandemic while we have been able to draw on our savings. But the previous chief executive threw money around like a drunken sailor on shore leave (two cash handouts with no accompanying vaccination requirement, bringing the qualifying age for the concessionary public transport $2 fare down to 60 etc) in a vain attempt to boost popularity, so the reserves are now reduced. There is bound to be pressure for more relief measures next year but against a backdrop of declining tax revenues. Financial secretary Paul Chan Mo-po is going to have a tough time getting the balance right in his next budget and will need the full support of the chief executive and other ministers. Mischief makers seeking to attack China by undermining Hong Kong from time to time try to break our currency’s peg to the US dollar. They will see any weakness in our management of public finances as an opportunity for more speculation.
Number four, it is time to draw a line under the social disturbances of 2019. Three years have now passed but of the 10,000 persons – many of them youngsters -- arrested at that time, some 6,000 cases remain outstanding. We all understand that careful deliberation over possible prosecution takes time and operation of the courts was affected by the pandemic, but this situation is simply unacceptable. It is unsettling for the individuals concerned and their families. It is also disturbing to the wider community. To be reading in the newspapers now, week after week, of people being sent to prison for rioting and other violent offences is to be repeatedly reminded of that unhappy period.
Lee and security minister Chris Tang Ping-keung are uniquely well qualified to bring the saga to an end as their national security credentials are unchallengeable. Lee should set a deadline of the anniversary of his appointment. If a case is not before the courts by then it should be simply dropped. An imaginative leader could even advance the deadline to the Chinese New Year so that everyone can celebrate with their families without this dark cloud hanging over their heads. It is time for the healing to begin.
Number five, can we calm the rhetoric a bit when foreign forces set out to provoke us? The repeated episodes of the wrong anthem being played at sports events is annoying whether done accidentally (as seems likely in one instance) or on purpose which seems possible in a couple of cases. Google’s response is simply silly. When people play childish games we should not allow ourselves to be provoked into a disproportionate response. That just reduces us to their level. We are the adults in the room, let’s just focus on fixing the problem, which we seem to have done in this case. The correct anthem is now number two on google and our athletes know how to respond if other organisations get it wrong.
Number six, can we give a special push to tourism next year? The sector has been particularly hard hit with visitor numbers a fraction of the glory years. With the best will in the world it is going to take quite a while to recover. At least the relevant organisations are already going all out to get started. The Tourism Board is working with the industry association to lure back exhibitions, the entertainment sector has revived Clockenflap, in the sports sector the trail-blazing rugby union is repeating the world-famous Hong Kong Sevens on a more expansive basis than the recent one. In addition to providing a hard economic benefit, there are soft gains too. Leisure tourists may see business opportunities or exciting career opportunities. The industry is not sitting back, it is working hard and deserves our support.
Merry Christmas, Mr Lee. We are all looking to you for a better new year.