Setting government policy often involves balancing competing interests. Whether a government should invest in one project or another depends on which one brings the most benefits, and which is less likely to cause a riot. Our government generally gets this bit right. But the most delicate balance of all, the balance between business and consumer interests, has been neglected over and over again.
Writing this article before the announcement of the 2018-19 Budget, I already know this government has sided with the former. In an age where trickle-down economics has been firmly rejected as a myth, Hong Kong needs to do more to show that individuals actually matter.
The problems we now face have remained the same throughout the years. The government is clearly not short of cash (what with the HK$138 billion budget surplus this year), yet 1.3 million people still live below the poverty line and the bulk of our social welfare is still provided by underfunded NGOs. While Theresa May’s government in Britain can blame their lack of spending on years of budget deficits, this city has no excuse to be penny-pinching in the same way. More needs to be done to take care of the needy.
Although fiscal prudence is not a concrete indicator of a pro-business government, this attitude can be seen by the government’s policies and the image they present to the public. Writing in The Economist, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor promised that Hong Kong was still “open for business”, and that her government aims to create an environment more friendly to potential foreign investors. While Lam was probably saying that for the benefit of the magazine’s audience, which mainly consists of old white businessmen, the message she sends is that the interests of the few come before the many. This has been affirmed in her pre-budget speech to the Chinese Manufacturers’ Association, which promised a halving of tax rates to 8.25 per cent for the first HK$2 million of profits. Though not necessarily true, the impression this gives to the public is that the government is blowing their surplus on tax cuts for the already-wealthy.
This impression has a very important effect on the population, which have already been disillusioned by years of political discontent. The continuous refusal to spend on the just-about-managing, coupled with the generous business policies, means that the people feel increasingly unaligned with the aims of the government. Whether their intentions are genuine or not, spending on the general population shows that the government cares about its people. With plenty of money in its pocket, wider provision of welfare by the government will have the dual benefit of achieving a material increase in standards of living and pleasing the population.
We have moved on from the days of John “welfare-kills-prosperity” Tsang Chun-wah, and Lam appears to be much more receptive than her predecessors. This should hopefully mean that her pledge to alleviate “poverty, income, and lack of opportunities” will be more than just a mere catchphrase. Time will tell how far this administration is willing to help, but it would be a serious mistake for them to not start catering for the majority.