Fresh perspectives on the HK crisis

As Hong Kong counts down apprehensively to the October 1 National Day holidays, attention is focusing on how the government might address the underlying causes of the protests. As we wrote recently, CE Carrie Lam’s “Four Actions” are a decent game plan. But time is running out for specifics to be researched and decided ahead of the Policy Address at the end of October. The government cannot properly canvas public opinion by then. It is going to have to draft some measures on the fly, based on a less-than-perfect consultation mechanism. 

Paul Chan, the finance secretary, made that clear this week in an interview with Global Times. Reiterating that stimulus spending is on the way as the economy lurches toward recession, he eagerly noted that the CE’s speech will reveal all, i.e., decisions had already been made. He also acknowledged that the government “gets it” on housing. But it remains unclear if Chan and his colleagues really do.

“The SAR government realizes that housing is the most pressing problem, and we will do everything to solve it,” he told the Global Times. Specifically, the government is not only pushing through a vacancy tax bill, but would resume auctions for dedicated public housing, with 700 hectares coming onto the market in the next five years, while more farm land reclamation “is also being considered”.

Will it work? Chan’s lack of a sharply tuned political antennae makes it less likely, in our view. Putting aside whether the finance secretary should be pre-empting the CE’s Policy Address at all, his interview with the Global Times focused on Hong Kong’s integration with the mainland, and the housing comments were secondary. These views on integration may be important, but airing them at this moment, so close to National Day, is risky and sends a tone-deaf message which is likely to radicalize protesters. Focusing hearts and minds on issues that will make an immediate difference to people’s lives in Hong Kong is clearly the more urgent priority. Any distraction is unhelpful. GBA integration issues can come later. 

This letter writer to SCMP, by contrast, puts the housing situation in a clear light. Pointing out that the protesters’ sixth demand should have been public housing for all who need it, he notes that there are 200,000 people living in subdivided flats in Hong Kong. This is something that would never have been tolerated in a city on the mainland with more than US$1 trillion in fiscal reserves. Such a shameful situation cannot wait five years for 700 hectares of newly auctioned land to come onto the market. It needs to be addressed now.

If it isn’t, it’s hard to imagine how the government has a hope of quenching the anger running through the protests. The remaining four of the protesters’ Five Demands can all be tackled, in time, and Lam can lay out a more detailed pathway on October 31. But if she fails to comes up with a bold plan for housing reform – demonstrating that she has the will to take on the city’s 21 richest families who collectively own more than the city’s entire fiscal reserves – it will be hard to take any of her other promises seriously. And in that case, the violence underpinning these protests will likely continue to flare. 

Why would it not? As Michael Chugani writes in a sobering opinion piece in SCMP, the violence, sadly, regrettably, has shown that it is the most effective form of protest in Hong Kong at the moment. Peaceful protests didn’t make a difference in the early days of this movement. Millions of people in the streets did far less to persuade the CE to amend the Fugitives Bill than a pop-in by the head of the General Chamber of Commerce. We don’t condone violence, but it’s hard for a balanced political analysis to fault Chugani’s logic.

Lam has a little over five weeks to get a really bold action plan in place. In the meantime, all we can hope for is that October 1 passes without an act of defiance so extreme as to derail the efforts of moderates on both sides to defuse the street tension and find a way forward. Hong Kong needs an imaginative, courageous plan for its future. The Greater Bay Area needs it. China needs it.

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