Pain-killer budget must bring relief

Editorial | Mary Ma 20 Feb 2020

Next week's budget should be extraordinary as we suffer through the worst time in recent memory following months of social unrest and a raging epidemic.

Can Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po deliver a budget that faces up to and meets the enormous challenges?

Foremost must be employment: there is no doubt that people will lose their jobs - it's only a question of how many.

If Chan is able to produce a fiscal masterplan that minimizes job losses, he can claim to have passed the massive test and push the budget he will present next Wednesday as a credible roadmap.

Otherwise, it will be a failure - even if he accedes to mounting political pressure to give every Hong Kong adult a cash handout of HK$10,000.

The SAR's unemployment rate for November to January was 3.4 percent. Although it was slightly higher than the preceding quarter, the increase was mild and not yet a major concern for the city in general.

But the figure did not reflect the impact the ongoing novel coronavirus epidemic is having on the local economy.

As statistics are released in upcoming months, the picture will start deteriorating rapidly.

For example, a Chinese restaurant near where my in-laws live is closing down after this month.

And even the tenants in some upmarket shopping malls stopped doing business for a day recently to demand landlords lower rents substantially until the epidemic is over.

These reflect the urgency to which Chan must give top priority in his budget. It has to be a roadmap of hope.

A week before the budget, it was reported that Chan is giving serious consideration to calls by political allies to give all adults HK$10,000 in cash in addition to billions of dollars of relief that his immediate boss, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, has jumped the gun to announce on several occasions.

Since it became obvious that the social unrest has had an impact on the economy, Lam successively rolled out HK$25 billion worth of reliefs over the past six months.

The latest epidemic relief fund announced recently would increase relief so far to more than HK$50 billion in total.

Should everyone aged 18 and above receive HK$10,000, amounting to a further HK$63 billion?

I was skeptical that the administration would have a change of heart on the question of cash giveaways after having rejected it in the beginning.

Would Lam have already announced it were it to be the case? I wonder.

But in politics, one never says never. So will Chan be given a rare chance to claim the credit of handing out the cash?

Whether that's going to be the case or not, such a move must not be the centerpiece of the budget. Not even HK$10,000 for every adult will save the SAR if the budget is misdirected and workers start losing their jobs.

And don't forget, the government doesn't hire most people. Private-sector employers do.

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