Harbour View: Settling or soaring in the Year of the Horse

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Lofty dragons or heads-down horses: Hong Kong’s politicians will profit from knowing what aspirations must be addressed and which can be safely ignored in The Year of The Horse.

This traditional greeting for vigourous horse and dragon spirits is particularly apropos in the Year of the Horse. How this year goes for the political power and the opposition will depend on whether the people of Hong Kong have the sky-high ambitions like a dragon or the grounded satisfaction of a dutiful horse.

It becomes a question of what we will and will not settle for. While in Canada for the holidays, a visit to an old friend made stark the differences of what different people settle for in different places. A long wait for diagnostics, followed by a misdiagnosis, has possibly led to the development of an unnecessarily fatal cancer. When encouraged a year ago to seek out a second opinion or to travel to the US for a scan, the patient demurred. 20 kilos lighter after multiple rounds of chemotherapy,
his attitude and that of his wife is ‘well, you have to trust the system you have.”

By contrast, a Hong Konger close to us got her mother brought to Hong Kong, demanded a second opinion and then a same day scan in China, resulting in a faster diagnosis and access to drugs not commonly available under the Canadian system. There are some things Hong Kongers will not tolerate – and it is up to politicians to sense where the fault lines lie.

For opposition politicians, the fault lines are where they make their advances. For the Government of the day, they are certain pitfalls if unaddressed. This is the burden of incumbent government and the luxury of opposition.

There are some things Hong Kongers will not tolerate – and some they will.

Dragons in the sky…
Hong Kongers, generally known as an aggressive, demanding bunch, have a number of areas in which they tolerate no failure. Power supply and public transportation come to mind. Hong Kongers would be shocked at how people in other jurisdictions accept delays in public transport systems or power outages during weather events. MTR, PowerAssets (HKE) and CLP have a globally envied record, but are constantly under attack from political point scorers here.

Education is another area. Even though Hong Kong outscores almost  every other school system on the globe, parents here are obsessed with doing whatever they can to get the smallest incremental improvement in their child’s schooling. They force the government to not just talk about, but also move, on reform. Other places talk big and do little. Hong Kong overhauls. Woe betide the Education Secretary whose reforms are unpopular. National education, which would have, for the first time in  Hong Kong history, had parents telling children not to believe what their teachers told them, would have created such a disturbing dissonance that it was beaten back in short order.

Raising taxes or increasing the complexity of taxes is another no-go zone. The proposed introduction of the GST was one such attempt. The new, complex stamp duties have caused a revolt on both sides of the political  spectrum in Hong Kong and have been debated long after implemented and still may not be passed.

…horses on the Earth
Hong Kongers aren’t all ferocious all the time. They often just put their heads down and get to business, tolerating all manner of hardship without complaint like a loyal work horse. There are laws, supposedly created to address public concerns, that are constantly flouted. Small ones include  idling engines, jaywalking, and more and more, littering.

The environment seems to be one area where there has been, until recently, more smoke than fire. Hong Kongers have grumbled endlessly about poor air quality but there hasn’t been radical action on this front, the English media making more of it than Chinese press. The development of the country parks also seems to be an issue where it is tough to get sustained attention. Enforcement against illegal building seems to be rife with thumb-twiddling, milquetoast enforcement and ineffectiveness.

Kick a horse…
The best politicians can see where the fault lines are moving. They move faster in politics than in geography. In Hong Kong, the old fault lines will connect to new ones – and it seems the government has started to place its bets on what those danger spots will be.

Poverty is one. In a place so wealthy, it has become untenable to have people living below a certain standard. Here, Hong Kong is following the rest of the world. Once absolute poverty is almost eradicated, a new foe must be found. In this, Hong Kong has seized on the global fad of inequality, ensuring that there will always enough poverty to keep poverty alleviation industry in jobs and government funding. Lethal to governments, who can never, statistically, eradicate a bottom quartile, it is
steady work for opposition politicians. The government has decided that this is a new ‘must-fix’ for Hong Kong and is on the job.

Like in other places, relativistic definitions mean they will never succeed in eliminating poverty, but may have some impact on the worst cases that brings the issue within public tolerance levels.

Savvy politicians are on the lookout for the next big fault line in Hong Kong politics.

Ground a dragon…
Accepting welfare is a fault line gone quiet. A generation gap is opening  here university student groups openly provide advice to undergrads, theoretically our best earners in the future, on how to game their way into public housing. Recent changes to procedures mean that the Housing Department has become impotent in prosecuting those making false declarations to qualify for public housing. When this was revealed to LegCo in November by Kitty Yan, Assistant Director (Legal Service) of the Housing Department, the LegCo reaction was….nothing. Politicians aren’t interested.

The older generation believed it shameful to accept welfare and was grateful for it when they absolutely needed it. That attitude is dead and gone in Hong Kong’s younger generations. Politicians don’t care, because they (the smart ones) are on the lookout for the new big issues.

New ambitions, new dangers
Finding the new fault lines is where political hay can be made. Housing is another area where the government has felt compelled to take action. With unemployment at record lows, people should be thrilled with their job prospects. But money printing and tight land supply means no matter how bright the job, the middle class don’t see a path to their new entitlement, owning their own home. The government is on the job.

Another fault line is choosing our leaders. This is an area harder for the government to just ‘give the people what they want’ but a great one for the opposition. Opinion is becoming hardened and there is no need to belabour the many who have mentioned how explosive this situation could become.

Environment may move. The outcry over the possibility of chipping away at the country parks may gather momentum – or lose ground to housing concerns. The most vociferous antagonists almost seem like housing concerns – those opposing landfill expansion which might impact their flat values. This paper has and continues to report on Hoi Ha as a test case for when the momentum for public concern will become a wave big enough to overrule ‘villager’ muscle backing their money making plans.

Watch out! The next big thing
Like poverty concerns giving way to relative poverty, unemployment will give way to underemployment. Since 1999, Japan’s unemployment has never gotten much over 5%, a number envied by other OECD countries  with better nominal growth numbers. But with 38% of the workforce considered ‘underemployed’ – working part-time or below their potential, a new political point-scoring mechanism can be found. Hong Kong politicians are ripe to ‘discover’ this new employment issue to rally the middle class under their banner. Here, construction worker employers are desperate for supply and offering rapidly rising salaries. However, politically savvy university graduates (and their protective parents) are furious about possibly, maybe, someday having to do work that is (per their lofty ambitions) beneath them. Savvy politicians will try to score points on this. “Yes, unemployment is low, but only because the government isn’t doing enough to get you a good job.” Cue the outrage. Incumbent politicians would rather the electorate were all dutiful  workhorses, keeping their heads down and pulling hard. However, Hong Kongers love their rambunctious dragon spirits and will keep politicians on their toes in the Year of the Horse. The smartest pols will profit from it. Again, 龍馬精神!