At the weekend Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu marked the first anniversary of taking up the post. It is time for his annual report card.
In my view he has performed well over the past 12 months: I can recall several clear successes, and only one area where I think he could have done better. Let us review his performance so far and also take a look at the key issues confronting him in the next few months.
First up he has the unique achievement of having dealt smoothly with two annual civil service pay awards inside a year, after his predecessor declined to act on the 2022 claim during her term. Within days Lee had nailed the first and has now dealt with the second, also without drama. Another clear success has been the steady unwinding of all the Covid controls. After eight months they had all gone, even the stifling mask mandate. Riding the momentum thus generated, Lee launched a much-needed programme to revive the tourism industry. Though clumsily named, it is starting to produce results to the extent there are now capacity constraints in terms of numbers of flights and routes re-opened. Resources were also found for another round of consumer spending vouchers to boost public morale and the local retail market.
As the first year drew to a close, the government appointed a supremo to drive forward development of the northern metropolis. Better late than never.
It is notable that Lee’s practice is to move purposefully and steadily, first assembling all the evidence, then making a set of firm pragmatic decisions and organizing implementation. The methodology is very much like that to be expected from a senior policeman, which of course he once was.
The one area where I think he could have done better is in drawing a line under the social disturbances of 2019. It is not far short of scandalous that to this day some 6,000 people arrested at that time (out of a total of 10,000) still do not know whether or not they will be prosecuted. It cannot be long before the courts start to rule that prosecutions should not proceed because of the lapse of time. How can witnesses be expected to remember clearly what happened on individual days four years ago? Earlier this year, two of Lee’s senior officials hinted that the exercise was coming to an end shortly. The sooner the better so our social fabric can start to heal.
Turning to the future, Lee’s second year begins with an urgent need to review two of his predecessor’s major decisions. This will not be easy because the whole concept of executive-led government assumes previous conclusions were sound and should now be implemented without undue delay. The extension of the $2 concessionary transport fare scheme to those aged 60 was a major blunder and has to be reversed. In the last financial year the bill totaled $3 billion and a staggering $6 billion is estimated for the current year. The recently launched exercise to combat abuse is necessary but will not do much to reduce the financial cost. The population is aging so more will become eligible, and transport fares will continue to rise. This represents budgetary Armageddon. Phasing out the right for those in the 60-65 bracket will have to be carefully handled, the most help I can give is to suggest increasing the qualifying age by one year every two. An increase in the passenger’s contribution is inevitable but will not be popular.
The second concerns the absurd proposal to construct public housing on the golf course at Fanling. The option was strongly promoted by the previous chief executive and has since been vigorously defended by two of her acolytes carried over into the present administration. Between them the three have briefed Lee to the effect there is no alternative site, staging major tournaments there will not be materially affected, and the environmental damage especially for trees can be minimized.
The problem for Lee is that the evidence does not support these contentions: all three have been called into serious doubt by parties making presentations to the Town Planning Board over the past two weeks. The Heung Yee Kuk has offered a specific alternative site which is more suitable and can provide the equivalent number of housing units. Organisers of the upcoming ARAMCO sponsored golf tournament have stated categorically the proposed housing would make Hong Kong a much less attractive venue in the region. Meanwhile Hong Kong’s foremost tree expert, Professor Jim Chi-yung has shown in a comprehensive report (which I was present for) that contrary to the optimistic assessments in the environmental study most trees in the development area will in fact die, even if attempts are made to relocate them, because their root systems are too extensive to be moved with them.
It is the Saudi angle that will give Lee most angst. There is an ongoing geopolitical shift in motion, China is busy making more friends in the Middle East. President Xi Jinping visited Riyadh in December last year and secured agreement to paying for oil in RMB instead of US dollars. Our chief executive followed up in February and secured the golf sponsorship. There have since been several commercial deals signed between Saudi and Chinese businesses. The ultimate target – whisper it softly -- would be for a secondary listing for the world’s most valuable company on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
With so much at stake, Lee will need to be on top form. So a good first year and a B plus so far, but many more challenges ahead. He will be okay if he sticks to the evidence.