From the economy, exiting Covid-19 and restoring public finances to healing the 2019 rifts, rebuilding tourism and easing rhetoric against foreign provocations, Hong Kong is counting on Lee for a better new year.
Hong Kong 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’s resolutions to help him navigate the stormy waters.
Number one, stay laser-focused on the economy. The government has exciting plans to address our many areas of social need, in particular housing and an ageing population. There are also imaginative proposals for the long-term development of our economy.
These will bring great benefits but also incur considerable costs in the short term. Such matters will be more easily handled by a growing economy whereas ours is in a recession likely to run into early next year. We urgently need a quick turnaround.
Number two, ensure all decisions on Covid-19 control measures are taken in full context, not solely on the requirements of combating a single disease. Protecting public health is an important priority but not the only one.
Other considerations need to be brought to bear, not just of 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.
Guarding against possible deaths from Covid-19 needs to be balanced against increases in suicides, particularly among the young, or failure to treat other diseases.
Lee has established a good record of easing up in this area (scrapping quarantine and use of “Leave Home Safe”, 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 distinguish Hong Kong from governments elsewhere. They had to run up huge debts coping with the pandemic while we drew 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, lowering the qualifying age for the concessionary HK$2 public transport fare to 60, and so on) in a vain attempt to boost popularity, so the reserves are reduced.
There is bound to be pressure for more relief measures next year but against declining tax revenues. Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po will have a tough time getting the balance right in his next budget and needs 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.
Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po attends the Global Financial Leaders’ Investment Summit in Hong Kong on November 2.
Number four, it is time to draw a line under the social disturbances of 2019. Three years have passed with more than 10,000 arrested, many youngsters, but the cases for some 6,000 remain outstanding. We understand that careful deliberation takes time and operation of the courts was affected by the pandemic, but this situation is simply unacceptable.
It is unsettling for the individuals and their families. It is also disturbing for the wider community. To be reading in the newspapers 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 dropped.
An imaginative leader could advance the deadline to the Lunar New Year so everyone can celebrate with their families without this dark cloud hanging over. It is time for the healing to begin.
Number five, can we calm the rhetoric a bit when foreign forces provoke us? Repeated mistakes about the national anthem being played at sports events are annoying whether accidental or on purpose. And Google’s response is simply silly.
When people play childish games, we should not be provoked into a disproportionate response. That just reduces us to their level. We are the adults in the room, let’s focus on fixing the problem, which we seem to have done in this case. The correct anthem is now the top result in Google search 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 that in the glory years. With the best will in the world it will take quite a while to recover.
The Tourism Board is working with the industry to lure back exhibitions, the entertainment sector has revived Clockenflap, and in the sports sector, the Rugby Union is repeating the world-famous Hong Kong Sevens on a more expansive basis.
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.