Quotation of the Day

27 October, 2011

The politics of Hong Kong's property market (EJ Insight, 24 Oct 2011)

The economics of Hong Kong’s property market is well understood; its politics is not.

In economics, we look for supply-and-demand analysis. One digs up data on household incomes, demographic trends, the flow of capital, the wealth effect of the stock market, interest rate, and the medium to long-term supply of properties of various sizes, etc. etc.

In politics, it looks a little more haphazard. Hong Kong’s chief executive, after years of resistance to populist calls, took a U-turn last week in his farewell policy address by resurrecting the Home Ownership Scheme (HOS). Donald Tsang clearly sees his turnaround as a major final achievement, even leaving behind a political legacy.

Like a Hitchcock movie of suspense, the prolonged delay in reviving the scheme somewhat heightens the controversy and masks its actual insignificance. First, the committed target of 17,000 units of HOS in total is nothing but modest compared with his predecessor’s target to provide 85,000 residential units a year for Hong Kong. Second, to build 15,000 public rental housing units and make land available for 20,000 private sector units per year are just a reiteration of his past policies.

The real significance of all this is to illustrate once again the political dilemma of Tsang – or indeed any chief executive of Hong Kong – in solving the housing problem.

To begin with, the problem is ill-defined. Whose problem is it? To the super-rich, there is no problem. To the older middle-class generations who had a better chance of reaping the supersonic growth of the 1980s and cashing out in time, the problem may not be too big either. But to the up-and-coming generations, to the “sandwich class” of white-collar workers, and to anyone not yet on some kind of public housing subsidies, the problem is acute.

Begging the above question, in terms of finding a solution, the Hong Kong government is handicapped by harsh economic realities that deny it an effective mix of policy tools. First, the city’s fixed exchange rate, as noted by many commentators, strips its government of any flexibility in monetary policy and leaves its interest rate to the devices of the US Federal Reserve. Second, the huge influx of capital from the mainland goes almost unmonitored and unregulated. The official reason is that Hong Kong’s avowed “free port” policy does not allow it to impose any capital control. Only very recently did the city’s monetary authority requested local banks to tighten mortgage lending to foreign investors. But the influx has started taking its toll since 2006 and has been galloping to uncontrollable magnitudes in recent years, possibly as an aftermath of the mainland’s version of quantitative easing.

Thus, effectively, the city’s monetary policy is made in Beijing and Washington, in spite of its alleged independence. The local populace may one day start to wonder why their hard-earned incomes are apportioned by mainland technocrats or American politicians from Alabama to Wyoming. But for the moment, even if the chief executive is not popularly elected, he cannot ignore two glaring facts that practically tie his hands.

For one, the structure of Hong Kong’s economy is, after years of soul-searching to and fro, not very far from its status in 1997. In the second quarter of 2011, property related lending (including property development and purchase of private residential properties) accounted for two-thirds of all domestic lending. Manufacturing? A shameful 7 percent. So much about its government’s decade-long rhetoric about diversifying its economy.

It doesn’t take a PhD in finance to understand what a slump – nay, even only a correction – in property prices would mean for the banking sector, in terms of bad debts and reduced demand for new business loans. At present, the outstanding value of mortgage loans stands at some HK$800 billion, or about 1.6 times the government’s fiscal reserves last year.

Turning this figure around, one also sees how heavily Hong Kong’s population is invested in the property market. Possibly because there’s nothing else to invest in, given the monolithic nature of its economy. So this is another reality: a property price correction would affect the well-being of the majority of Hong Kong’s middle class. Many of them were behind the popular movement to topple the previous chief executive. Many of them complain about Hong Kong’s landed ruling class. Yet not many of them understand that, by investing in the property market, they have somehow had their fate or interests united with those of the property tycoons. Putting it more figuratively, the latter have them hijacked.

Frankly speaking, the Hong Kong government at its present structure will have neither the political will nor the economic means to offer any brand new solution to the housing problem. Its housing policy is likely to be one of either modest incrementalism or, worse still, a “no-policy” policy based on undefined moving goals.

Both of the two (alleged) chief executive candidates have expressed support for the incumbent’s “new” housing policy. Both have suggested some figures or targets. But neither of them is likely to be able to shake off the existing political shackle on this problem.

16 October, 2011

Tsang's last Policy Address

Two interviews on the last Policy Address of Donald Tsang; one before its delivery and another thereafter...I remain of the view that, in spite of his seeing the problems, he fails to offer a solution - a solution that demands social consensus on a new governing ideology. And that's not his personal failure but a systemic failure.

議事論事 (13 Oct), RTHK Television
http://programme.rthk.hk/rthk/tv/player_popup.php?pid=866&eid=155571&d=2011-10-13&player=media&type=archive&channel=tv

Chancedia (19 Sep)
http://www.chancedia.com/?p=35832

14 October, 2011

Why there's a point in the Occupy Wall Street Movement

It's true that we have to work out our own problems and not blame others all the time. It's also true that some of the younger generation expect too much too soon. But the Occupy Wall Street Movement does have a point; it reveals some fundamental ailments with the mainstream Wall Street values (or the so-called 中環價值 in Hongkong). For if Wall Street elites believe capitalism means "winners take all", it is self-contradictory for them to ask government to bail out failing banks. If capitalism does reward people who work harder and smarter, it is hypocritical to ask for taxpayers' money to clean up their debts and save them from their own ill-judged investment. If social security discourage people from working, huge bonuses to troubled banks - still on public subsidy - only encourage more reckless behavior in financial engineering. And it is purely unjust for them to demand cuts on social benefits to save whatever credit rating threatened by a liquidity crunch of their own making. The 2008 crisis shows that those financial elites are more skillful in protecting their vested interests by living off others than by their self-proclaimed smartness and diligence. And such protection comes at the price of inflation and higher taxes for all in the long run. They are salvaged from bankruptcy in their coffers, but they're bankrupt indeed in their trust and moral leadership to lead the nation.

09 October, 2011

神話的終曲(原載10月7日信報)

「我知道你的行為,你也不冷也不熱。我巴不得你或冷或熱。」
──《新約‧啟示錄》



權力,容易使人傲慢。

經歷2003年政治危機的人應該記得,當年政府猶如「撞邪」,高官不斷失言出事。那不是單純巧合,而是管治班子歷六年失誤都屹立不倒,令人錯以為在二十三條和買車事件上也能順利過關,結果導致了民怨的總爆發。

目前在政制發展的舞台上,這種似曾相識的劇情正在重演。十四年來的兜兜轉轉,拖得就拖的政改方案,以至最近的替補機制,令政府高層及建制派以為,只要這樣蒙混下去,我們的政治制度還可以撐上幾十年。最近政務司司長任命案公然挑釁民意,雖然未知會否成為駱駝背上最後一根稻草,但終究會有代價。

權力若能配合理性,會顯得莊嚴公正,可以「不令而行」;一旦它變得不合理甚至不尊重事實,便會令人覺得傲慢,最終是「雖令不行」。那時,當局將被迫以更強大更直接的權力貫徹管治意志,卻會更讓人覺得橫蠻,那是一種惡性循環,不幸的是這勢頭已在各種反抗浪潮中出現。

有些人認為政改不能過急,要平衡各方,要走得穩妥(參考9月30日蔣麗芸女士文)。那不是沒有道理。然而,回歸以來我們的步伐是太急還是太慢?特首選舉人票只是由八百加到一千二百,區議會委任制又死灰復燃,功能組別和分組點票的架構,猶如法國大革命前由教士、貴族和中產階級分組而成的三級會議(Estates-General);以職業決定人的投票權,比起以種族決定強不了多少。這已不是快慢之爭,而簡直是退化了。



香港的社會精英大多受過良好的現代西式教育,生活西化,不少長期居留外國,在事業上享受西方自由提供的便利、法治的保護,無論從事專業服務、企業管理還是金融,實踐的基礎不都是現代西方的制度與核心價值?為何一旦觸及政制民主化,便馬上倒退到十八世紀?如認為西方的制度有缺點,那為何要專挑人家已經唾棄的糟粕來模仿?還倒不如直接祭出炎黃老祖宗的申韓之術?

儘管輿論幾乎看不到公開反對民主原則的宣言(像陳啟宗那樣有勇氣揶愚民主制度人所皆知的缺點,少見),但很多人心底裏對民主頂多也只是葉公好龍。由於建制精英沒有一套有說服力的保守主義原則,也沒能具體講清楚,民主化的害處到底是什麼,維持現狀的好處又是什麼,以至討論總是那麼溫吞水,遮遮掩掩、拖拖拉拉;這樣,還不如來個灑脫,乾脆修改基本法,取消普選目標,免得放在那裏,礙眼。



久而久之,人們會懷疑這一切不是建基於任何邏輯理性或實際情況,而只是精英們為了一成不變地維護自身利益的鬼把戲。事實上,董、曾兩屆政府獲正式民意授權的基礎,從來都只是八百名選委;香港的管治猶如沒有政黨的一黨專政,而沒有競爭的權力欠缺自省更生,最容易變得專橫傲慢。

精英階層需要懼怕開放權力嗎?事實上大部分港人都服膺能者奪魁、多勞多得的資本主義精神,沒有理由相信這會因政制改革而改變。正如美國兩百年的民主制度也沒有窒礙資本主義的發展,反令它成為這精神的老大哥,不斷壯大,抵禦了半世紀以來社會主義的挑戰。

這是因為民主政治的最大優點在於它的教育功能,當人有自我管理的權利後,便須為自己的選擇負責,並在過程中學習,不能再諉過於一小撮人。固然總會有人後悔自己的選擇,也沒有任何制度能杜絕無恥食言的政客;但長遠而言,民主制度比其他制度更具自我完善、修復錯誤的能力,美國人從兩百年前的蓄奴到廢奴、從平權到今天黑人可以當總統,是為一例。

香港的精英階層也許對民主理念不感興趣,但至少應注意它對社會安定所起的功能;擔心政改過急帶來風險的時候,也要認真思考無限期拖延的後果。

殖民統治的成功,令精英們以為單純的自由經濟及法治便能確保香港的成功。這只是一個神話。事實上,缺乏民主的自由政體必然走向民粹:自由讓每個公民有爭取個體利益的動機和途徑,卻不能讓公民的意見落實到公共政策,不能讓他們透過投票得到選擇的權利,更不能讓他們在政綱的醞釀和辯論中,看到社會的共同利益,以及妥協合作的需要。

法治能保障公民的自由及制度的程序合法性,卻絕不能確立政治制度本身的合理性及認受性,也不能確保這種制度下產生的政策,能獲得公民的支持。


自由、民主及法治是一張三腳凳(用國人的古老比喻,是一個鼎),缺了一隻腳會塌掉;沒有民主的自由會變得膚淺浮躁,沒有民主的法治會變得處境尷尬。這是過去十四年的大趨勢。這種三缺一的制度,不能讓我們找到新的發展方向和社會共識。

而且這種危險傾向正在加深:要末,民粹政治催生進一步衝突,引來既得利益反彈,要求賦予行政機關更大的權力;要末,政府施政進一步民粹化,被迫肩負更大的社會經濟功能,造成更大的公共財政負擔。隨著環球經濟危機加深和香港的邊緣化,將有更多中下階層失去工作,社會地位下滑。和歐洲不同,那裏有認受性的民選政府尚能推行短期不受歡迎的政策;在香港,為免人們的失落轉化為政治怨憤,政府將被迫以更多常規化的派錢政策,滿足民眾的短期欲望。

無論是哪種方向,結果都是政府權力的膨脹和人民自由的萎縮;因為自由是一種權利,而權利必然附帶義務和責任。當人人透過政黨、傳媒及民調對政府作出各式各樣的訴求,而那個只有一千二百張選票授權的政府又不得不一一回應時,人們會發現政府要管的事情愈來愈多,而自己相應的自由會愈來愈少。

那一天,人們會驚訝地發現,香港賴以成功的神話已經破滅;那一天,恐怕不遠。

《十四年亂象回顧系列》 • 之十四
(全文完)



後記:這系列文章源自往日在政府的觀察,難得《信報》予以連載,從盛夏到深秋;收筆時,想起愛爾蘭民歌《夏日最後的玫瑰》,說到花瓣一片片的飄零,真有點像香港日漸消逝的光輝。政制爭拗經年不果,已耗掉整整一代人的時間。花兒謝了還會再開,光陰走了卻不會再來;我們還能消磨幾個夏天?

02 October, 2011

民主的最後答案(9月30日信報)

“因爲人有行公義的能力,令民主變得可能;因為人有不義的傾向,令民主變成必須。”
—— 萊茵霍特﹒尼布爾(美國神學家)



先前的十二篇文章已分析了施政困局背後的結構性問題。諸君若同意我的分析,解決問題的方向亦很明顯:那就是透過民主機制產生行政機關的領導團隊;而真正的民主機制不論如何設計都起碼要符合公平、公開、普及的原則,才會有認受性及公信力。我不預備在這裏討論具體的設計,雖然那很重要;因為多年觀察所得,我們原地踏步不是因為缺乏具體可行的方案以供討論,而是精英階層對民主的基本理念深抱疑懼,並無共識。

要釋除這種疑懼,我不打算討論「民主制度是否人類歷史上最佳的制度」這類理論問題,因為永遠不會有答案。更實際的問題是,維持目前的制度是否比實行民主政治更能促進良好管治?這在九七回歸以後並無認真討論,因爲不論建制及反對陣營,有時對民主的論述都流於原教旨主義;要麼認為只要一人一票便能解決所有問題,要麼把某些缺點無限放大,顯得嗤之以鼻,兩種意見都有欠公允。雖然諸君閱畢先前各篇該會同意,目前糟透的制度不論何人執政都無法有效操作,但可能同樣會質疑民主制度對管治的有效性。

主流的質疑可歸納為四大類。第一種意見是民主並非萬靈藥而且缺陷多多;他們會嘲笑擁抱民主價值的人都是思想幼嫩的年青人,會指出歐美民主很多人所共知的陋習。這種意見看似深刻世故,但只是「阿媽係女人」的陳述而已,對眼前的討論並無幫助;人們隨時可以反問:難道非/假民主制度,便是十全十美的靈丹妙藥?

第二種意見認為民主選舉會帶來民粹政府,貪得無厭的群眾會要求愈來愈多的福利,最終淘空國庫。金融海嘯後的美國及歐豬四國的債務危機,更令這派振振有詞。他們忽視了國債背後的複雜歷史、文化因素;譬如同樣施行民主政體的德國,並沒有出現歐豬四國的情況,以福利聞名的北歐諸國也沒有。德國曾受惡性通脹的深刻教訓,現在的財政及貨幣紀律足以傲立民主國家之首。至於美國,它國庫空虛的根本原因與其說是受福利政策拖累,倒不説是富裕階層缺乏承擔和連年用兵的結果。事實上,美國聯邦政府是因要應付1861年的南北戰爭才開始全面徵收入息稅,美國近代國債(佔國民收入比)大規模上升期是:二次大戰、列根總統冷戰高峰期、小布殊反恐戰爭期,而後兩者均以向企業大減稅聞名。


這方面反證很多,毋須詳列。香港商界不能不知的一個歷史故事是:十九世紀末,德國政治家俾斯麥意識到要維持保守貴族的政治利益,消弭新興產業工人的不滿,便要靠國家提供各種福利和退休保障,阻止左翼政黨的崛起,那才是現代福利國家的起源。這情況同樣在香港發生,只是港府高層及建制派並無俾斯麥的遠見及謀略,而只是出於一種無意識的操作;他們的無奈,是日益被迫以經濟上近乎社會主義的政策,換取保留政治上的保守政制,抗衡有民意基礎政黨的圍攻。這是何故我強調拖延民主化反會令管治進一步民粹化的理由。

第三種意見認為民主表決會造成51對49票的情況,令擁有51票的人永遠處於絕對話事地位,也就是所謂的「大多數人的暴政」。建制精英懼怕被普羅大眾「共產」可以諒解,然而細想之下這實屬過慮。


首先,香港的憲政設計是美式而非英式,不利於同一政黨、同一種意識型態或同一種感染社會的情緒,於同一時間控制行政及立法機關,後者且彼此有先天競爭制衡的誘因。基本法在多方面保障了建制精英的政治經濟權利,如第五、六、一百零五、一百二十及一百六十條等等;加之修改基本法必須通過的繁複程序,在在令這些不易輕動。當然更大的制度保障,在於獨立的司法機關,以及目前飽受建制派批評的司法覆核權,說不定有一天,最能捍衛建制合理權益,免受短期民意擺弄的行政機關侵權,正正將是終審法院。

其次,以香港社會的複雜性,公共討論不可能被單一議題壟斷:在普選議題上的盟友,可能對菲傭居港權有不同看法;對民主立場左右對立的群眾路線政黨,卻可能在競爭法上合作。議題的多樣性令妥協折衷變得必須,今天的盟友明天可能形同陌路,根本不可能有同一批人在每一事上都構成所謂的51票的大多數。


這方面更令人安心的,是香港沒有牢不可破的種族或宗教或語言文化的鴻溝──這些分歧往往是令民主政治在某些地區難以成功的底因;因為這些先天因素難為個人後天改變,會令社會上某些族群成為永遠的當權派或永遠的反對派,令民主機制失去包容和妥協的精神。

第四種意見是北京當局的取態,這是很重要的考慮。但立身香港、真正愛國愛港的精英們,應先想好有利於香港發展的立場,然後再向北京主動爭取,而不是凡事揣摩京意,自行閹割自己的發言權。發言權不等於決定權,但如果連這個也做不到,那可以肯定五年後北京當局拒絕行政長官普選時,堂而皇之的理由便是:香港社會本身對普選並無共識!



歸根究底,我們對政治制度的選擇來自對人性的判斷:如果你認為一般人都是愚人,只會為眼前利益你爭我奪,那麼社會最好是讓天使及精英來領導;如果你堅持投票權要和納稅量掛鈎,認為中國人先天不宜或不配施行民主制度,那對我提出的問題你不會找到答案。

然而,又有什麼能保障天使不會墮落、精英不會徇私?中外歷史都說明,在缺乏監督制衡的情況下,能力強而機關算盡的精英會給公眾利益帶來更大的傷害,沒有任何證據顯示,學歷學識或納稅多寡與人的愛國心及公益心有必然關係。以香港社會教育的普及、市民的理性務實、法制的完備,如果硬說還未準備好、未符基本法所定的「實際情況」,未知世上還有多少地方,具備產生民主政府的「實際情況」?

相比只是可能出現的「大多數人之下的暴政」而言,目前已是肯定存在的「極少數人之下的亂政」,恐怕才是香港的「實際情況」!





《十四年亂象回顧系列》 • 之十三