Hong Kong finance chief draws ire over police funding

Another budgetary measure, which allows PRs not living in the city to claim cash handouts, also earns him wrath

Hong Kong Financial Secretary Paul Chan arriving to deliver the annual budget at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong on Wednesday.
Hong Kong Financial Secretary Paul Chan arriving to deliver the annual budget at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong on Wednesday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Hong Kong Financial Secretary Paul Chan has come under fire from residents and lawmakers unhappy that the stirring budget would have the police receiving more funding and residents, including those living overseas, getting a HK$10,000 (S$1,800) handout.

During a radio show yesterday, Mr Chan sought to explain the rationale behind the budget measures for the financial year 2020/2021, but instead angered some listeners.

He had on Wednesday announced a one-off sweetener that would give HK$10,000 to each Hong Kong permanent resident aged 18 and above, to boost domestic consumption and ease financial burdens. But several callers yesterday questioned the initiative, saying it is unfair that people who have emigrated are also eligible.

Others, including a female caller who recently moved from the mainland to Hong Kong, felt the "budget has elements of discrimination against new immigrants".

In the budget debate, Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi Wai said it is unfair that Hong Kong permanent residents not living in the city would get the cash handout, but not those below 18 who do live here. But Mr Chan said the administrative procedure to identify people would complicate matters.

"It's doable, if I wanted to impose restrictions on who can get the money, but it wouldn't be easy. It would take a long time. I wouldn't be able to give residents the money quickly," he added.

According to the budget, the scheme, meant to help seven million people, will cost the government HK$71 billion.

For the first time in 15 years, the government recorded a budget deficit of about HK$37.8 billion for the financial year 2019/2020, or 1.3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). The cash handout is expected to widen the deficit to HK$139.1 billion, or 4.8 per cent of GDP.

Under the measure, overseas Hong Kong residents can apply for the handout online, and do not have to return to the city to get the money. The government aims to allow people to apply for the handout by early July.

During the debate, opposition lawmakers took aim at one particular proposal - additional funding for the police force.

Pan-democracy camp's Ms Claudia Mo accused the government of using the cash handout to deflect criticism of the increased funding for the police.

Lawmaker Charles Mok said the additional funding should be distributed to the people instead.

Some opposition lawmakers also wanted the police funding to be treated as a separate item, independent of the budget.

This was denied by Permanent Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury Alice Lau, who said it is common practice to ask the Legislative Council to approve all funding in one sitting.

The total funding to be allocated to the police is HK$25.8 billion, up 25 per cent from the previous year. The police are expected to add a further 2,500 posts to their 35,000-strong force in the next financial year to "strengthen operational capability".

Seven months of often violent anti-government demonstrations sparked by an anti-extradition Bill sent Hong Kong's tourism and retail sectors into a tailspin, putting a drag on the economy. But this has now quietened, largely owing to the coronavirus outbreak.

Last year, the economy contracted by 1.2 per cent and this year, the government projected it to shrink by up to 1.5 per cent or grow by up to 0.5 per cent.

Yesterday, the force said riot police officers will start to return to regular law enforcement duties, such as crime prevention and traffic control, as the protests have faded.

The total funding to be allocated to the police is HK$25.8 billion, up 25 per cent from the previous year. The police are expected to add a further 2,500 posts to their 35,000-strong force in the next financial year to "strengthen operational capability".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2020, with the headline Hong Kong finance chief draws ire over police funding. Subscribe