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Tuesday, October 13, 2020, 10:17
Govt needs convincing, coherent policy strategy
By Ho Lok-sang
Tuesday, October 13, 2020, 10:17 By Ho Lok-sang

It is the government’s responsibility everywhere to deliver key public services such as healthcare, public sanitization, education, water supply, weather forecasts, social safety net, public amenities, etc. Hong Kong is rather unique, however, in having a very big publicly subsidized housing program that accommodates almost one-half of its entire population. Just by way of comparison, in the United States, somewhat more than 1.2 million households live in public housing out of 129 million households, and rents are roughly 30 percent of household income (compared to no more than 10 percent for Hong Kong). 

Now that the chief executive has announced the postponement of the 2020 Policy Address to next month, allowing her more time for refining it, I would express my fervent hope that in addition to the coverage over various policy areas, the government would offer some discussion on its policy strategy. In view of the lack of public trust and understanding about policymaking in the special administrative region government, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor would do well to offer a coherent and convincing policy strategy that is seen to be reasonable and that addresses the public’s main concerns.

I would argue that in addition to the various public services common to all governments, all governments need to build two kinds of infrastructure. First is physical infrastructure like a railway system, airport, roads and water-supply and sewerage systems. The second is “soft infrastructure”, which is just as important, including institutions, culture, norms and values. These things, like physical infrastructure, need time and effort to build and, like physical infrastructure, form part of the environment in which people live, and condition how we live our lives.

The reason Hong Kong went through such turmoil over the past few years is because our soft infrastructure is very weak. All along, we have overlooked the importance of building soft infrastructure. 

This is not just about the public misunderstanding of the government; it is also about the government failing to address issues of concern.

The government needs to make it very clear that Hong Kong is steadfast in supporting freedom of speech, independence of the judiciary, timely and accessible healthcare, caring for the handicapped and for the elderly, ensuring that affordable housing is available for all Hong Kong people, etc., and offer a strategy that will work. The government needs to make a strong case that the National Security Law for Hong Kong is consistent with the spirit of the Basic Law, and it was the failure of the SAR government to legislate for Article 23 amid public objections that made the National Security Law necessary. In the case of the extradition law amendment bill, the SAR government failed to introduce key measures that could have allayed the fear in some Hong Kong people. If it had done so, the amendment might have been possible. 

To me, the SAR government should refer to the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration more often in justifying its actions. In particular, the common narrative whether among the Hong Kong public or in the international media is that Beijing violated its promise in giving Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy. But the Basic Law explicitly requires a nominating committee in vetting candidates for the chief executive post and the joint declaration explicitly declares Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China. The SAR government needs to keep reminding Hong Kong people and the Western media about these facts. 

The secretary for education made a good point in saying that the first ever teacher deregistered was disciplined not because he crossed the red line in talking about sensitive subjects, but because of professional misconduct. However, the chief executive in a statement criticized some teachers for promoting misunderstanding about the nation and smearing the country and the Hong Kong SAR government without basis. The problem with this statement is not whether it is untrue, but whether a criticism is equivalent to a smear. This is often subjective. Professional misconduct, on the other hand, is not. 

In that particular instance, the teacher who designed the teaching materials would first introduce the subject of freedom of speech. Then, without explaining that freedom of speech is subject to limits, he introduced a secessionist’s pro-Hong Kong independence views. If the teacher was professional, he needed to explain to students the limits to freedom of speech in a civilized society. He should also have brought in someone to explain why Hong Kong independence is not feasible and will not bring peace and happiness to Hong Kong; instead, chaos, lawlessness, and economic disaster would be inevitable. 

Finally, the nuanced nature of freedom of speech is a complicated subject, and so even if the teacher had done all of the above, this still may not be appropriate for primary five students.

Education is an important component of soft infrastructure. For this reason, I would strongly support an all-out reexamination of the education sector, and weed out teachers that advocate violence and secession. After all, we need to build a new generation of people who are keen in building Hong Kong into a civilized society that respects diverse views and at the same time shares the same aspiration for a better future for Hong Kong.

The author is a senior research fellow at Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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