SCMP Tuesday, August 1, 2000

Finance chief tips 3pc jobless


The Financial Secretary hopes the unemployment rate will fall to three per cent by the end of next year - a prediction immediately contradicted by a leading economist.

Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who was briefing businessmen during a visit to Australia, said unemployment had been edging down steadily amid the economic recovery of the past six months.

He said he "hoped it could drop back to three per cent, from its current level of five per cent, within 18 months to two years", according to a government press release.

It is the first time Mr Tsang has offered a specific time frame by which a three per cent unemployment rate - the general level before the 1997 financial turmoil hit - will be restored.

But Francis Lui Ting-ming, of the University of Science and Technology's Centre for Economic Development, doubted whether the jobless rate would ever return to three per cent.

"I have never heard him make such predictions in Hong Kong," he said. "Perhaps he only wants to 'good mouth' Hong Kong and try to woo investment knowing he would not be challenged if he said such things overseas."

Mr Tsang came under scathing attack when he predicted in 1997 that the Asian financial turmoil would be over by Christmas that year.

In fact, it worsened and only began to ease towards the end of last year.

Dr Lui warned that the finance chief was making another mistake. "He was outrageous last time," he said. "I warned him in my articles that there would be a big recession. But what he said at the time was against all mainstream economic forecasts."

Dr Lui said it would be difficult to retrain low-skilled workers because of the structural change in the economy.

Lee Cheuk-yan, of the Confederation of Trade Unions, said Mr Tsang was overly optimistic. He said people over 40 with poor education had difficulty finding jobs. "It's very bad for the Government to convey such a message," he said. "It gives the impression that officials do not know the plight of the workers. It really offends the public."

Mr Tsang said his trip to Australia had reaffirmed his determination to secure the 2006 Asian Games for Hong Kong. Referring to the massive media coverage expected for the Sydney Olympics, Mr Tsang said: "You just can't buy that kind of advertising. That's why we are taking our bid so seriously."

A decision is expected in November. Hong Kong is competing against Kuala Lumpur, New Delhi and Doha, the capital of the Gulf state of Qatar.

Mr Tsang was speaking after talks with the New South Wales Treasurer and Minister for State Development Michael Egan, who briefed him on Sydney's A$3 billion (HK$14.18 billion) investment in Olympic infrastructure.