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Tsang's blueprint fails to convince his critics

HONG KONG: It was billed as a blueprint to tackle an overheating property market and the widening wealth gap, even perhaps to shape Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's political legacy. But his penultimate policy address left observers asking whether it could leave a series of problems for his  successor.

The 50-page document — Sharing Prosperity for a Caring Society — took Tsang 105 minutes to deliver, but critics wondered if its key policy thrusts went far enough to secure the city's long-term future.

The chief executive was at pains to stress continuity as he mapped out plans for his last 21 months in office at the Legislative Council on Wednesday, Oct 13.

Afterwards, as he faced the press, he was asked if the current administration was dragging its feet and putting off real decisions. "I believe that service to the public must be a continuum. It must not be truncated by the terms of office of individual chief executives. I am not going to step down tomorrow, I still have nearly two years in office," Tsang said.

"If I fail to deliver my policy pledges, you will certainly pursue me and hold me responsible."

There will be plenty to pursue him over, as his sixth policy address was high on problem-tackling measures but, the sceptics said, low on effect.

As expected, Tsang unveiled plans for a new subsidised-housing scheme under which people priced out of the property market will be able to rent their way to buying a home. Under the scheme, rent paid will count towards the price of purchasing a house.

He pinpointed the need to ensure a sufficient supply of land to allow the building of 20,000 private residential flats a year to maintain a stable property market, only to later soften his position by saying 20,000 was "not a hard target".

In response to public concerns about property buyers from outside Hong Kong driving up prices, the government has decided to temporarily remove property purchases as a qualification for becoming an investment migrant under the Capital Investment Entrant Scheme.

To address an ageing population and demographic changes, Tsang — who was chairman of a government task force on population policy in 2003 when chief secretary — asked the Steering Committee on Population Policy to launch two studies.

One will look at ways to help the elderly settle on the mainland after retirement. The other will study the possible impact of children born in Hong Kong to mainland mothers returning to the city to study and live.

Also, as widely expected, Tsang said he would keep on hold the implementation of new national security legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law because the majority of the population is against it.

But it was the effectiveness of the measures aimed at tackling the red-hot property market that raised the most questions, even among government-friendly politicians and advisers. For many priced out of the property market, the rent-to-buy scheme may come too late and offer too little, some said. Only 5,000 flats will be built under the scheme and the first batch of 1,000 in Tsing Yi will only be available by 2014.

Stock market investors seemed to believe the latest measures would do little to keep rising property prices in check. Key property stocks plunged by a few percentage points shortly after Tsang began speaking as investors feared he was about to get tough. But most recovered quickly.

Some also doubted whether the exclusion of property transactions from the investment category under the Capital Investment Entrant Scheme would rein in prices.

Mainlanders bought about 35% of new luxury flats worth over HK$12 million in the first half, according to Centaline Property Agency. And in the new mass residential market, 13.2% of buyers are from the mainland.

While welcoming Tsang's move to tackle long-term issues such as an ageing population, demographer Paul Yip Siu-fai said: "You have to study the issues well beforehand and tell the public the solutions, rather than telling the public that we are going to conduct more studies."

Yip, a part-time adviser with the Central Policy Unit and a professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong, said the government had done too little to nurture talent in Hong Kong. "Every year, several thousand miss out on university admission because of insufficient subsidised places. Yet the chief executive only promised to increase government-funded first-year undergraduate places to 15,000 from 2012-13."

Wong Kwok-hing, a lawmaker from the Beijing-friendly Federation of Trade Unions, said: "The policy address has pinpointed existing social problems, but failed to offer solutions to deep-rooted conflicts."

Ray Yep Kin-man, a political scientist at City University, said Tsang was trying hard to show he was no lame duck, even though he has less than two years left in office. "Given the constraints he is facing, he can't do much in his remaining tenure."

Lui Tai-lok, a sociology professor at the University of Hong Kong, agreed. "Whether the Tsang administration has the intention of [changing the status quo] in the next 1½ years is no longer relevant." — South China Morning Post
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