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Back to the future, minus our democrats

Hong Kong, 7 April 2021: I hope Dennis Skinner is enjoying his well-earned retirement. A titan of British politics and Labour Party icon, he represented the Midlands constituency of Bolsover in Parliament for 49 years until 2019. For 31 of those years the Conservatives were in power and the “Beast of Bolsover” – a former coal miner renowned for his staunch left-wing views and acerbic wit – was their nemesis, a passionate and principled opponent who held successive governments to account for their actions.

His caustic comments frequently landed him in trouble. “Half the Tory members opposite are crooks,” he once told the House of Commons. After being ordered by the Speaker to withdraw the remark, he said: “OK, half the Tory members aren’t crooks.” Even the Conservatives had to laugh. You may not have agreed with Dennis Skinner’s outlook, but you could admire his spirit and political nous. He commanded respect.

It is difficult to say the same about most of Hong Kong’s pan-democratic legislators, now either locked up, in exile or cast into the political wilderness by Beijing’s electoral reform. Their failure to form a cohesive and coherent opposition bloc has been one of the great puzzles of post-1997 politics here. While they garnered headlines with their theatrical antics in the Legislative Council chamber – mocking the oath-taking ceremony, fighting with security staff, spilling fertiliser on the floor and dropping a rotting plant in front of the LegCo President, to name just a few examples – they alienated many fellow citizens and certainly angered our leaders in the north. Hence the sweeping changes to our electoral system that were confirmed last week.

We are, in fact, harking back to the colonial days with this not-so-new model of executive-led government. A leader with almost absolute power, an inner circle of allies and business elites offering advice, a compliant Legislative Council, and a police unit responsible for the territory’s security reporting directly to the people at the top. This was the situation when I arrived here almost 40 years ago. We have come full circle.

However, with this electoral reform that removes political constraints, Beijing is placing the onus firmly on our government to deliver peace, prosperity and progress to Hong Kong. This can only be done by tackling long-standing issues regarding housing, education, healthcare and social welfare. The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated this city’s yawning wealth gap and chronic inequality. Will Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her ministers have the vision, ability and willpower to deal with these effectively? I wish I could be optimistic.

Their immediate priority, of course, is the Covid-19 vaccination programme, now back on track with the German-made BioNTech jabs resuming two days ago following a 12-day suspension due to packaging flaws. These and the Mainland-produced Sinovac doses are being offered to a public which is still reticent about being vaccinated. Only 113,000 people (including me, as of this afternoon) have received their second jab and can be considered fully inoculated. This is just 1.5% of the population, a long way from the 70% required for herd immunity. I repeat my message that I’m hugely supportive of the vaccination drive. You can learn all about it and book your appointment here. For the record, Hong Kong logged seven new Covid-19 infections yesterday, taking the cumulative total to 11,531, with 205 related deaths. We are told to expect about 10 new cases today.

Meantime, we continue to wear our masks and observe social distancing regulations. Well, most of us do. Police and government officers issued a total of HK$5 million (about US$643,000) in fines to 980 residents over the long Easter weekend. The fixed penalty for flouting rules on public gatherings, wearing masks and mandatory testing is HK$5,000. Enforcement officers weren’t the only ones doing brisk business. Hotels offering staycations reported 90% occupancy while restaurants generated HK$320 million in daily revenue, around 90% of pre-pandemic levels.

Our city’s pubs, karaoke bars and mahjong parlours would love to report such figures but, of course, they remain closed. It is too much for some workers from these establishments who staged a four-day hunger strike outside the Legislative Council to draw attention to their plight. I can sympathise with them. In the past year, between full closures and restricted operations, their businesses have only been allowed to run normally for 24 days.

The pandemic has forced many people to dig into their savings, a costly exercise given that Hong Kong was this week listed as the second most expensive city in the world, behind London, in which to retire. This index of “financial freedom” – that is, being able to maintain a nice lifestyle without needing to work – was compiled by online property portal Juwai IQI. It said you would need US$4 million in savings and investments to live here in considerable comfort. Shanghai, New York and Tokyo rounded out the top five. Even in Kuala Lumpur, it costs US$1.83 million to retire free of financial worries. I imagine it is somewhat more affordable for our friend in Bolsover.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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