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Policy Address Must Tackle Though Issues

(Article to China Daily - 2003.1.6)

Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa¡¦s next policy address will be delivered to the Legislative Council on Wednesday. Although this annual Address is his sixth comprehensive policy statement on how he proposes to rule the region, it is still going to be a particularly momentous one in a number of ways.

Firstly, it marks the beginning of Tung's second five-year term as Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. But unlike his first term, which began right after the transfer of sovereignty, Tung has now more political experience and a great deal of time to reflect on before deciding what he really wants to do. Given the elaborate process of internal consultation within the government, the community should be entitled to assume that the agenda set this time round have already received the full backing of civil servants.

Secondly, the policy address is also considered to be a mission statement prepared collectively by the new team of official hand picked by Tung and working closely under his supervision. Up till now, the general public has only been given glimpses of these individual officials through sporadic statements of policy intent.

The full team is yet to reveal its master plan to the people of Hong Kong in a well co-ordinated manner. The course that the Tung team is charting for Hong Kong will no doubt provides an important direction for the whole community and ultimately shows the true colour of their political strength and wisdom.

Thirdly, this policy address will have to face up to unusually difficult economic challenges and severe budgetary limitations. Amidst the background of a depressed global economy and a record high budget deficit, it is obvious that numerous worthwhile reforms will have to be put on hold because of resource constraints.

In addition, the new team will also have to find ways to chill the irritable civil servant unions who are embattled in difficult wage negotiations with the Administration as their employer. The private sector too appears to be in need of some soothing. Afterall, those outside the public sector are being hit even harder by the poor economy and now face a seriously high unemployment rate by the standard of Hong Kong.

In my view, the policy address cannot possibly be regarded as the panacea for all society¡¦s ills. However, it must provide clear directions for the community so that the people will maintain faith and hope until they see lights at the end of the tunnel.

It has to be a vision lofty and well-defined but at the same time considered feasible. Instead of offering solutions to everyone in sight the policy address might let everyone see how they can eventually help themselves.

I urge the Administration to focus on just three key areas in 2003. The full and unreserved economic integration with the Pearl River delta; the fostering of community solidarity and to bring the monster budget deficits under control.

The policy address last year struck the right cord when Mr. Tung portrayed Hong Kong as a world city in Asia. However, one year has gone past and few of the artificial barriers in restricting the free flow of capital, goods and people between Hong Kong and the China mainland are removed.

In realizing this very possible and important goal, the pace of removing barriers must pick up. Hong Kong believes in Mr. Tung because of his strength in keeping a good relationship with the Central People¡¦s Government. This strength has to be turned into actions soon in terms of greater economic integration, better co-ordination of infrastructural planning and a much more liberal population policy that brings benefits to both sides of the border equally.

The People of Hong Kong have been promised prosperity and stability before the reunification with the motherland and we are willing to work hard for it ourselves. All we are waiting for now is the opportunity to be able to compete fairly and equally under the same rules within Chinese soils.

Some successful formula to attract a free flow of capital investments into Hong Kong. And the co-operation needed to construct the infrastructures are needed to move goods and people efficiently and economically pass the borders. In this regard, the government has already suggested many good plans for discussion with the central government. The public will be full of expectancy to see how these cards are played.

It is sometimes said that prosperity and stability are twin brothers that go hand in hand. A gloomy economic outlook breeds discontent and mistrusts in copious measures.

The primary task of a Government of the people is to try to balance different community interests in these sensitive times. She should avoid ruling by divisive means and delay any non-essential reforms that might cause bitter emotive controversies.

In short, maintaining solidarity in the community during hard times must be top priority. During these hard times, the public must be repeatedly assured that only essential and benevolent reforms will be undertaken. Furthermore, that these reforms will also be brought about in the fairest and the lightest handed sort of way. In this respect, moral leadership is just as important as effective and proactive public administration.

The move this year to defer the timing of the policy address and to tie it in with the traditional March Budget is particularly astute and fortuitous given the enormous size of the Budget problem.

In particular, the magnitude of the problem has grown in recent months to implicate that confidence of international investors is already at stake. The chief executive should no doubt take the opportunity to ally concerns from that quarter.

I have little clue as to how the chief executive has chosen to divide up this work with the financial secretary. But I hope that the policy address will at least point to a clear direction that the deficit can be brought under control within a specific time frame and that action plans are already in hand.

The private sector and the international community will also be watching closely how he proposes to tackle the problem of civil servant unions before judging the merits of the forthcoming government financial plans to be announced in March.

If Mr. Tung succeeds in winning over the unions in the next two months, he will not only have boosted international investor's confidence immediately but might also make life a lot easier for the financial secretary to raise revenue later in order to balance his books.

In the consultation meeting with Tung on the 29th November 2002, I urged him to clearly state an aim to return to a small and lean government. A Government that stay within its core values and services and leaves as much economic resources as possible in the hands of the private sector. This will enable the economy to bounce back quicker and higher when the time comes.

I believe that layers of bureaucracy can still be trimmed and that many government projects can be sold or privatized. The new five years blue print is the perfect time to chart this course and set plans in motion.

On our part as lawmakers, I believe that we should stand united behind the Government as far as possible in these trying times. It is only when we show leadership and solidarity by example that the community will keep hope in their hearts and order in their lives. It is only then that a very difficult situation can be made more manageable.

Eric Li is a Legislative Councillor and convenor of the Breakfast Group

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