What’s Wrong With Hong Kong?

On 24 June, following the UK vote to leave the European Union, David Cameron announced in London that he was resigning as Prime Minister and many people, me included, expected a long, bloody and divisive campaign within the Conservative Party to succeed him. How wrong can one be.

Confronted with what is arguably the most serious UK political crisis for 70 years, the Conservative Party rapidly narrowed the field of candidates to one, Theresa May, who on Wednesday, 13 July became the country’s second woman Prime Minister. She immediately set about building a new government that dumped some longstanding Cameron loyalists, such as the Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) George Osborne, and ensured through responsibilities allocated to new appointees, that those who had campaigned as Brexiteers would carry much of the burden of resolving the challenges their campaigning had created. It was an extraordinary, and sometimes ruthless, political accomplishment.

Returning to Hong Kong after a break of six weeks, three of which were spent in the UK, the contrast with the British performance is striking. General discontent, indicated by the incidence of demonstrations – of which the Occupy protest in 2014 was the most egregious – the persistent opposition to government policy in the Legislative Council (Legco) and the emergence of separatist movements indicate a community profoundly ill at ease with the state of the city’s governance. In many ways this is astonishing.

The HKSAR is a medium-sized city (2015 population 7.3 million), prosperous (2015 GDP per capita USD42,407) with a highly educated population. Yes, the HKSAR has features that other Chinese cities lack but of these two, defence and foreign relations, are the responsibility of Beijing, while the third, a separate currency, is linked to the US dollar and managed through a currency board. These are not onerous responsibilities. Running Hong Kong should be a straightforward job for any competent administrator. Sadly, this has not proved to be the case.

The reasons given for why governing Hong Kong is so difficult are many but not all of them are convincing.

First, it has been suggested that Hong Kong lacks an experienced political class and this has been an impediment to sound governance. This may have been the case in the early days after 1 July 1997 when the HKSAR got off to a shaky start under C H Tung but 19 years is a very long time in politics. Anyone who doubts this should note that on 1 July 1997 Theresa May was a novice parliamentarian having been elected an MP for the first time just two months before on 1 May 1997. You can make a lot of headway in 19 years.

It has also been claimed the requirement that the Chief Executive is not a member of a political party creates a problem. This is nonsense. There are presently 16 political parties represented in the 70-member Legco, alongside 10 independents affiliated to either the pro- or anti-establishment blocs (5th legislative council). If the CE were drawn from any one of these political minnows it would merely guarantee opposition from the rest. Nor does the absence of such membership in any way detract from the CE’s ability, should she or he wish, to cultivate constructive relationships with Legco members.

Others have suggested that Legco members would perform more effectively if they were permitted to initiate legislation. This is a constructive proposal, potentially focusing members on a responsible approach to policy issues thereby deterring the childish outbursts that currently damage their credibility. The only practical objection, apart from the constitutional issues entailed, is that creating agreed policy among such a splintered body would present huge challenges. Party consolidation would be essential to success.

Finally, it has been noted that the conflicting interpretations in Hong Kong and Beijing of ‘one country, two systems’ and ‘a high degree of autonomy’ have created significant social and political tensions. In short, are the social and political cultures of Hong Kong and Beijing irreconcilable? This is the nub of the governance problem.

Without doubt the values and culture of Beijing and Hong Kong are very different. The former has no tradition of democracy, little respect for the rule of law, and suffers acute paranoia, understandable given the country’s history, with respect to its territorial integrity. Hong Kong’s values, bequeathed by a democracy but nurtured under colonial control, include the rule of law, the freedom of speech and assembly. Many Hong Kong people are also deeply suspicious of the Communist Party.

Inevitably these differences create competition for the hearts, minds, loyalties and control of Hong Kong people with much of that struggle played out through government and the policies it creates and implements. Thus the composition of the Hong Kong Government and how it is appointed is critical, leading to the battles over implementation of Article 45 of the Basic Law ahead of the 2017 Chief Executive election.

The defeat of that Government Bill has only created a new phase in the struggle with the recent emergence of parties advocating independence from China, thereby causing acute concern in Beijing, whose representatives are now seeking to exclude separatist party members from standing in Legco elections.

These developments prompt a counterfactual: would Hong Kong be a less troubled, more tranquil place if Article 45 had never existed? Maybe. Undoubtedly, there would have been no ambiguity about the extent of Hong Kong autonomy and democratic development that Beijing was prepared to tolerate; and the absence of such issues might have created a more relaxed political atmosphere in which Hong Kong’s cherished values could comfortably be enjoyed.

What is certain is that the current political trajectory of Hong Kong is deeply worrying. The increasing intransigence of Legco, marked by constant filibustering, the rise of separatist sentiment and the consequent intrusiveness of Beijing’s control are set to provoke more extreme responses on all sides. In these circumstances the Hong Kong Government looks more a victim of social conditions than an effective governing body. Its behavior is marked at times by irresolution – for example the recently highlighted inability to collect outstanding rates and rents from landlords – and at others by confrontational actions, such at the appointment to Hong Kong University of Arthur Li . At the same time it appears unable to formulate coherent policy responses to Hong Kong’s problems, be they the environment, the state of the public health services, the increasing wealth gap or, at a more trivial level, the arrival of Uber in Hong Kong.

A major strategic reset is required. For the Government this would involve
consistent application of the law and regulations, a less confrontational and aloof approach to governance, and greater transparency about interaction with and influence over major institutions such as the ICAC. Oh, and a few decent policies on major issues of public concern.

Legco members need to recognize that there are three elements to the practice of politics, policy, principles and the nitty-gritty, and often grubby, business of compromise, without which little can be achieved. At present they are short on policy, unclear on principle – except, perhaps, that the Government is always wrong – and totally unprepared to acknowledge the possibility of compromise.

Such changes would help move Hong Kong into calmer social and political waters and reduce the levels of concern in Beijing. They need to take place. Continuing down the HKSAR’s present political path will turn Hong Kong either into just another second-tier Chinese city or the Monaco of Asia, a low-tax refuge for the rich and retired.

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