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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

FORGET POLITICS

Now it's the economy, stupid


Hong Kong elections: Main story

Creative counting

WONG PO-SANG HAS BEEN JOBLESS since the electronics trading company where he worked folded a year ago. Ever since, Wong, 47, and his family have survived on a monthly unemployment benefit of about $1,000. There has been talk in the community of late that such subsidies should be discontinued. But Legislative Council candidates take note: Those who want Wong's vote would do well to protect the jobless benefit (or at least promise to).

The elections of 1991 and 1995 were dominated by political issues - the shootings in Tiananmen in 1989 and, later, the electoral reforms of former governor Chris Patten. Back then politicians were measured for the most part by their pro- or anti-China stances. In this year of economic turmoil, however, the main themes are lay-offs, liquidations and lows in property and stock prices. In 1991 and 1995, Wong, like many middle-class people, listened to his fears of China and voted for the Democratic Party (DP). This year, however, he might vote for the pro-China Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB). "I don't see a major difference in the policy platforms between the DP and DAB," he says. "But what caught my eye is the DAB's jobless relief program."

Economic uncertainty is one issue. Health and the environment are others. Since China resumed sovereignty last July, Hong Kong has been plagued by a series of food scares - chicken flu, poisoned vegetables, red tide, E-coli in beef, pigs fed with banned drugs. And anyone who has been in the city 10 minutes can see how the environment is deteriorating - air pollution, a stinking harbor, closed beaches. And yet few parties have included such themes in their platforms. "They tried hard to come up with suggestions on economic and employment policies," says Citizens Party chairperson Christine Loh, "while overlooking the important issue of food safety." Loh fervently backs the creation of a food safety council.

If many voters base their choices on economic platforms, some also will use their votes to punish candidates who sat in the provisional legislature Beijing set up after the handover. For his part, Tsang Yok-shing, chairman of the pro-China DAB, says some parties, the Democrats in particular, are overblowing the anti-China sentiment for political purposes. But Loh says she regularly meets people who plan protest votes against former provisional legislators. Voters like Kitty Lam, who owns a translation house. "Once, I was involved in the translation of a couple of provisional legislators' speeches," she recalls. "What captured my attention was their very stupid ideas. Why did political idiots want to become legislators?"

Consider former provisional legislator Charles Yeung. When the secretary for economic services was briefing the controversial, unelected body about government spending in February, Yeung brashly said: "Why don't you tell us about the revenue side?" Even a high school student knew that the financial secretary would provide the details in his budget speech the next day. Voter Lam knows the legislature's powers are limited and is not banking on its members to turn around the economy. "It is more meaningful," she says, "to use my vote to show disapproval of the provisional legislators and their backers in Beijing."

That is not to say Lam has no complaints about economic and social issues. She blames Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's policy of building 85,000 flats a year for eroding her flat's value by nearly a third. (The regional crisis is also responsible for the property woes.) Rather than rely on politicians, Lam wrote a commentary to a newspaper criticizing Tung's ideas. "The chief executive is so overwhelmed with an executive-led system," she says, "legislators do not have his ears."

In fact, all major parties support Tung's 85,000 target. In part this is political expedience; no one wants to be seen as going against the underprivileged. But most property analysts agree that Tung should refine his target to take into account the deflationary pressures. Yet none of the parties have alternative strategies. This is due in part to insufficient funds to undertake meaningful research. The platforms are strikingly similar and show little creativity in tackling the major economic and livelihood issues.

"Both the DAB and DP requested a cut in interest rates and a ban on labor importation," says Loh, "and that's it." Loh argues that some of the high costs jeopardizing Hong Kong's competitiveness and recovery are caused by monopolies in public utilities - electricity, container terminals, transport - which should be stopped. However, the Democrats' vice-chairman Yeung Sum insists on playing up political issues. "Fighting for democracy and freedom is our trademark," he says. "We should not blur our image by burying ourselves in social issues." Coming up with new ideas is so much more onerous.

- By Law Siu-lan/Hong Kong


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