The Straits Times, Jan. 13, 2005
HONG KONG - HONG Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa, admitting to shortcomings and inadequacies in his leadership, pledged yesterday to listen more closely to the people and to address the city's growing poverty problem. Mr Tung's annual policy speech to Hong Kong's lawmakers comes after Chinese President Hu Jintao publicly reprimanded him and his ministers last month and urged them to put the people first.
'We introduced too many reform measures too hastily, putting heavy burdens on the people,' Mr Tung said. 'We lacked a sense of crisis and political sensitivity as well as the necessary experience and capability to cope with political and economic changes. 'We were indecisive when dealing with emergencies. These shortcomings and inadequacies have undermined the credibility of our policy-making capability and our ability to govern,' said the former shipping tycoon who gained Beijing's backing to run Hong Kong after Britain handed it back in 1997.
Outside the Legislative Council, dozens of protesters called for more welfare and a minimum wage - demands that the government and big business have long resisted on the grounds they would deplete resources and scare off investors. Inside, Mr Tung spoke of plans to alleviate problems of the poor and create more jobs, but announced no major new initiatives. He promised to ensure that all poor children go to school and to provide needy parents with health and counselling services. He also eased restrictions on pensioners, allowing them to spend up to two-thirds of the year in mainland China, where their money stretches further. Those who are completely disabled would receive an extra HK$100 (S$20) a month in allowances.
The government will also set up an anti-poverty commission, to be headed by Financial Secretary Henry Tang, to look into solving the problem of poverty over the long term. One in four children lives in poverty in Hong Kong, one of the richest cities in the world, a recent survey showed. Te Chief Executive gave the merest of mentions to popular hopes for more democracy, saying universal suffrage would eventually come about - but stopped short of saying when.
Last April, China ruled out full democracy for the territory for at least several more years. Political observers said Mr Tung's self-criticism was the harshest ever heard, but added that he has taken the easy way out by avoiding sticky political questions. 'He feels he needs to respond to the dressing down...because Hu Jintao asked him to search for inadequacies,' said Mr Joseph Cheng, a politics professor at the City University. 'He has chosen the easy way out. The policy address reads very much like a promotion document of the administration.'
Social scientists say help for the poor is long overdue and warn that social conflict could worsen if the growing gulf between rich and poor is left unresolved, a scenario that worries both Mr Tung and Beijing. Hong Kong does not have an official poverty line but aid groups estimate it at HK$9,000 a month for a household of four. Some 1.2 million people, or 460,000 families, fall below that line. Of these, 203,000 families live on less than HK$4,000 a month, up from 84,000 such households in 1997. China yesterday praised the speech of Mr Tung and said it expects that he can become of 'one heart and one mind' with the Hong Kong people. -- REUTERS---------------