"You guys are fat. We have fed you for years. I hope you don't only talk about the spirit of the contracts. I hope you can talk about the conscience of corporate social responsibility."
The quote of the week comes from Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, the lawmaker representing the catering sector, in calling out Hong Kong's money-grubbing landlords for not chipping in to ease the burden on commercial tenants whose businesses have been devastated by the coronavirus crisis.
I'm not sure if Cheung was channelling William Shakespeare, but the analogy that springs to mind is that of the "caterpillars of the commonwealth" whom we may do well to "lop away, that bearing boughs may live", bloated creatures incessantly munching through already wilting gardens watered by the blood, sweat and tears of this city.
In a bid to counter the coronavirus carnage, the government is pouring tens of billions of dollars into relief packages for the worst-hit sectors. But taxpayers' money alone won't be enough to stop businesses - already bleeding from a year of social unrest - from collapsing under the relentless onslaught of a disease that has changed consumer behaviour in a climate of anxiety and uncertainty.
Retail sales are down a record 44 per cent, and many tenants are asking for a 50 per cent rent cut that should be extended until at least the middle of the year, going beyond the token reductions so far that some of the city's property powerhouses have been trumpeting for lip service.
While we're on the subject, how about some much-needed housing rent relief for the countless unfortunates who have lost their jobs or been forced to go on furlough? Public housing tenants get official rent waivers and reductions when the going gets tough, but what about all those at the mercy of heartless private-sector landlords?
I'm not saying no landlord in Hong Kong has a conscience, just that many seem to be utterly devoid of one, and government intervention of some sort may be necessary. It's time to make sacrifices.
Of course this is a city of unfettered commerce, and any talk of rent control is instantly greeted with shrill alarm about big government undermining our free-market fundamentals, but this is a time like no other, when drastic curbs on personal freedoms are already in force to combat the spread of a scourge that has infected well over a million people and claimed tens of thousands of lives around the world.
Clamping down on landlords who continue to profit from extortionate rents is not a matter of curtailing their human rights, it's about reminding them of their humanity and social responsibility.
In Britain, the government is pushing through emergency legislation to ban evictions for three months and issuing guidelines to landlords to show compassion to tenants who have lost their income. Major cities in the US are taking similar steps and momentum is building up for a "rent strike" - using the hashtag #rentstrike and encouraging all tenants to hang symbolic, white bedsheets from windows informing landlords that they need to take the hit along with everyone else.
Like I said, not every landlord is a soulless miser. There are people in the world like Mario Salerno, a Brooklyn landlord who left a notice this week on the doors of 200 tenants in his 18 apartment buildings, telling them that he was waiving rent for April.
Here in Hong Kong, Cheung, champion of the catering industry, is a rich man, like most of his colleagues in the pro-business Liberal Party. I don't know how many of them are leasing out private property they own, but let's hope they're practising with their own tenants what he's preaching about weight loss to commercial landlords.
So far, I haven't heard of any private landlord in this city showing anything close to the generosity and humanity of Salerno of Brooklyn.
Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post
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