KONGThe pneumonia epidemic now sweeping Hong Kong - and much of
southern China - may just seem more bad luck. But the Hong Kong government's
tardy response has underlined the lack of confidence in the administration of
its Beijing-appointed chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa.
Instead of quick action, the people of
Hong Kong saw persistent denial of the dangers. Incompetence and indecision was
mixed with an unwillingness to risk offending the mainland, the source of the
virus, or to put public health interests before those of business.
Much has rightly been made of the threat
to Hong Kong's liberties posed by planned legislation that will outlaw vaguely
defined subversion and other "national security" issues. But little outside
attention had been paid to domestic developments that may pose a bigger threat
to the city's reputation for internationalism and social harmony. That could
change as the virus hits the headlines and popular discontent rises further.
Mean, racist and self-serving are three
adjectives that spring to critics' minds when considering recent actions of
Tung's cabinet of personal appointees, many with little experience in politics
or public service. The decisions hardly fit with Hong Kong's self-image, or its
slogan of "Asia's world city."
Faced with a large budget deficit, a
government of rich men decided to hit the poorest first. Suggesting that
unemployed people were shirking work and living on welfare, the government
recently announced a cut of 11 percent in welfare payments.
In reality only 20 percent of the
unemployed receive any benefits. Most welfare recipients are over 65 or
disabled. As a formal pension system was only started two years ago, many of the
city's rapidly increasing number of old people have to rely on handouts. The cut
was greater than that applied to civil service salaries, although at the top
level these are the highest in the world and face one of the lowest tax rates -
a maximum of 16 percent.
Then the government decided to tax the
next lowest in the income scale - the 250,000 "foreign domestic helpers," mostly
Filipinos and Indonesians, who constitute 7 percent of Hong Kong's work force.
They are paid - if they are lucky, because the minimum wage is little enforced -
one third of the median wage, for working long hours to enable Hong Kong's
middle classes to maximize their earnings while minimizing domestic chores.
The domestic helpers' wages are to be
taxed at 12 percent. Yet to reach the 12 percent tax bracket any other single
person would need an income of $50,000 a year, or 10 times that of the foreign
This has so outraged the Philippines that
it is taking the Hong Kong government to court.
It is hard for the Hong Kong government
to shake off the racist tag. The helpers are almost all brown-skinned people,
mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia. Long-established non-Chinese Asian
communities persistently cite job discrimination and an education system biased
against funding for minorities' schools.
Complaints of abusive treatment by
immigration officials of visitors from South Asia and Southeast Asia are
frequent. But officials continue to resist requests - including from the United
Nations - for legislation against racial discrimination.
The government is also actively opposing
attempts by the foreign helpers to be accorded the residence rights enshrined in
the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution.
To attract capital, the government is now
proposing to give permanent residence to business executives, other than from
the mainland, who invest the local equivalent of $830,000. It remains to be seen
how many people who are not ethnic Chinese will want, or be allowed, to take up
It may be inevitable that Hong Kong
becomes more Chinese and less international. But its government daily forgets
that internationalism is Hong Kong's unique edge over its high-profile rival
Shanghai, or its low-cost neighbor Shenzhen.
As for the phrase "self-serving," the
local media feeds on a rich diet of stories of decisions taken by ministers that
serve the interests of themselves or particular business interests rather than
the community at large.
In mid-2002 Tung replaced civil servants
with his own nominees at the head of policy-making departments. This was billed
as a "responsibility system." But they are responsible only to him, not the
legislature. Serious errors of personal conduct, as well as of policy-making,
have gone unpunished.
The pneumonia virus is serious. So is the
virus embedded in the Tung administration.