Hong Kong finance chief dismisses consumer voucher concerns after being criticized for not offering cash

Hong Kong’s finance chief has sought to play down concerns over the decision to hand out resident aid in the form of digital consumer vouchers after being reprimanded in some neighborhoods for not offering cash instead.

The voucher scheme, a repeat of a similar initiative last year aimed at boosting consumer spending, was the most eye-catching announcement in Finance Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po’s 2022-23 budget, which was unveiled on Wednesday. Under the scheme, 6.6 million eligible residents will be able to receive HK$10,000 in vouchers through electronic payment platforms to be used at restaurants, retailers and public transport.

“We hope to distribute the first half of the 5,000 HK dollars in vouchers to those heavily affected by the epidemic as soon as possible. They have the ability to decide when to use it,” Chan said on a Thursday morning radio show.

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Those who signed up for the last round of vouchers – which was only HK$5,000 in total – will automatically receive this year’s first installment in April, while new applicants won’t receive their money until the middle of the year.

Chan pledged to help those who participated last year but canceled their Octopus cards or deleted their e-payment apps to get their first installment in April as well.

But some citizens who logged into Thursday’s program feared they would be left out due to changes to the e-wallets they had registered.

“I replaced my Octopus card with the JoyYou card when I turned 60. Does that mean I can’t get the first batch of money?” asked a woman named Wan, referring to the personalized version of Octopus that lets seniors ride public transport at a discount.

“I deleted the Tap & Go app after its chaotic delivery of vouchers last year. Since I can’t remember my account number and password, what should I do?” asked another middle-aged woman named Lai.

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Besides Octopus, Tap&Go, AlipayHK and WeChat Pay were the three payment platforms recognized by the government to distribute the previous series of vouchers. AlipayHK is affiliated with Alibaba, owner of the South China Morning Post.

Chan acknowledged that the performance of some platforms was “unsatisfactory” over the past year and said his colleagues were working on how to enable those in similar situations to get their vouchers as soon as possible.

Some politicians, like People’s New Party lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, had criticized Chan on Wednesday for switching to digital vouchers, saying payments should be made in cash instead. This matched an earlier Democratic Party survey which found that 70% of 550 respondents preferred cash donations.

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But Chan brushed off criticism on Thursday, urging locals to spend the vouchers on anti-epidemic supplies and stressing that the main purpose of the program was to boost local retail consumption. Unlike cash, vouchers cannot be spent on rent or taxes, nor can they be saved indefinitely.

“If the epidemic situation is not completely controlled and going out is not encouraged in April, you can choose to shop online,” he said. “Or you can choose to spend it later. There is still plenty of time.

He said the second installment would “come in phases” later this year, but didn’t say when the scheduled vouchers would expire.

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