City should re-focus on social and economic issues

Updated: 2014-09-24 07:20

By Zhou Bajun(HK Edition)

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City should re-focus on social and economic issues

Speaking at a meeting with a delegation from the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions on Sept 16, Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the National People's Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), said the framework designed by the top legislature on Aug 31 had the "highest constitutional power that can't be challenged or overturned". Hong Kong could only implement universal suffrage within this framework. Therefore, the opposition camp would never realize "genuine universal suffrage". On Sept 19, Zhang Dejiang told a delegation of the New People's Party that Hong Kong needs to re-focus on developing the economy and improving the livelihoods of Hong Kong people.

Therefore, the SAR government should encourage society not to over-emphasize constitutional development, but to pay more attention to economic and welfare issues. In this regard the government, on Sept 17, announced the 2014 Railway Development Strategy.

This provides a framework for planning further expansion of Hong Kong's railway network. Between now and 2031, this includes building seven new railway lines or extensions - including a new North Island Line on the northern shore of Hong Kong Island.

The same day, the government again failed to get New Territories resident support for a revised plan on the Tuen Mun landfill expansion. Revisions to the plan will see the extension reduced by 20 to 180 hectares. The unused area will be turned into a green buffer zone of 10 to 30 meters wide. It will encircle the landfill to minimize any impact on nearby residents. But, this still failed to appease Tuen Mun district councilors even though it was far smaller than the 75 percent they had requested. The district councilors want compensation for affected residents, road improvements and a system to reduce household waste. They argue that the district already has more than its fair share of objectionable facilities, including a columbarium, as well as having to accommodate the bulk of the city's waste.

Predictably, if the government fails to convince Tuen Mun district council, the plans for two other landfill extensions and a waste incinerator will be delayed in the Legislative Council (LegCo).

Hong Kong faces many social and economic issues which need to be dealt with. For example, although the government has done much to ease an overheated property market, prices have still climbed to historic heights. Prices of small- and middle-sized units have increased far more than luxury flats. This shows that young people's demands for housing exceeds the supply. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of young people are actually asking for lower pay in order to qualify for public housing. These property market problems are deeply entangled with the problems facing young people. Tackling the property bubble and dealing with the social problems of Hong Kong requires sensible policies aimed at restructuring Hong Kong industry. This is why the government cannot become preoccupied with constitutional development.

Another daunting task facing the government is how to narrow the city's widening wealth gap. On the one hand, Hong Kong has 15,400 multi-millionaires - those with at least $10 million in net assets - more than any other city in the world. Hong Kong is also fifth on the millionaires list, with 2.9 percent of the population, or 211,700 individuals, with net assets of at least $1 million. Together these wealthy and super-wealthy residents hold net assets totaling in excess of $350 billion. Nevertheless, on the other hand, some 19.6 percent of Hong Kong's population is classified as poor. This group falls below the government's poverty line of 50 percent of median household incomes.

Is the city's minimum wage scheme - currently set at HK$30 an hour - helping to narrow the wealth gap? The answer is a disappointing "no". Recently, a local survey attempted to gauge how current wages rank in purchasing power compared with other nations. This is based on a well-known indicator, the Big Mac Index! With the price of a Big Mac at HK$18.8 in Hong Kong, a worker earning the hourly minimum wage of HK$30 can afford 1.59 Big Macs after an hour's work or 1.54 Big Macs if the effects of inflation are deducted from the minimum wage. Among the 22 economies which have statutory minimum wages - as compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development - Hong Kong ranks 11th in terms of the number of Big Macs a worker can afford after an hour's work.

It is well known that Hong Kong's Minimum Wage Commission is preparing to recommend a new wage level to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying before the end of October. If the government encourages society to focus more on economic and welfare, then issues like the minimum wage may be easy to deal with.

The government should also improve the efficiency in making and implementing its policies. It should also receive more support for this from the LegCo. Hong Kong society has to urge opposition lawmakers in LegCo to stop filibustering when LegCo starts its new session in October. Hong Kong has to move away from political wrangling and actually start addressing these crucial social and economic issues.

The author is a veteran current affairs commentator.

(HK Edition 09/24/2014 page10)