The Dismal State of Hong Kong’s Governance

The election for the next Chief Executive of the HKSAR takes place in March. Some candidates have already declared their intention to run should they receive the necessary minimum, 150, endorsements from the 1194 members of the Election Committee. It is an appropriate moment to consider the state of the governance of Hong Kong. It is dismal.

To date, no Chief Executive has completed the two terms of office that the Basic Law allows. The current Chief Executive, C Y Leung, elected in 2012, unexpectedly announced he would not run for a second term, citing concerns for his family. He has been seen as a divisive and confrontational leader.

Notable controversies during his leadership have been the failed attempt to introduce Moral and National Education in the city’s schools, the Occupy Central movement, and the continuing attempt to disqualify some pan-democratic and localist members from Legco.

His predecessor, Donald Tsang, took over from Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive, C H Tung, when the latter resigned in 2005 before the completion of his second term of office. Donald Tsang is presently standing trial for various alleged offences of misconduct during his term of office.

C H Tung, widely regarded as a decent man, failed to adapt effectively to running a government bureaucracy and was undermined when an attempt to introduce security legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law was derailed by a demonstration of more than 500,000 people on the streets of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s transition from British colonial territory to Special Administrative Region of China undoubtedly presented challenges for Hong Kong’s Government, as it has done for the rest of society. However, there are other factors that have defined government since 1997; and they are not conducive to effective administration.

The Government is frequently arrogant, assuming that it always knows best, and widely perceived as indifferent to matters of concern to the public, such as pollution, the wealth gap, the quality and availability of housing, or the enforcement of the simplest regulations or laws. The Financial Secretary’s occasional habit of distributing cash ‘sweeteners’ to the public, rather as a parent gives candy to a fretful child, is indicative of this patronising attitude.

But the Government is also timorous, fearful of tackling vested interests, be they the Heung Yee Kuk in the New Territories, taxi drivers, or even landlords who fail to pay due rates and government rents.

And the Government is hopeless at managing major issues or projects. It took 15 years to enact competition law in Hong Kong. It has taken 18 years and still counting to create the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD). However, where Beijing or serious vested interests are concerned, action can be prompt. The latest example is the proposed Palace Museum in West Kowloon.

The Palace Museum will be sited in the WKCD, with funding of HKD3.5 billion from the Hong Kong Jockey Club, and will feature artefacts on loan from the Palace Museum in Beijing. The reaction in some quarters has been vitriolic. It has been suggested that, a) the project is entirely Beijing inspired, b) that the process has been improperly secretive, c) that the architect was appointed without proper tendering and, d) that the artefacts won’t be very impressive anyway.

Carrie Lam, Chief Secretary of the HKSAR, is also the chair of the West Kowloon Cultural Authority Board, and thereby involved both in the creation of the project and in defending it before legislators. In one such session, Legco member Claudia Mo told Ms Lam that the project was ‘the darkest deed in your 30 year career’, a remarkable, even hysterical outburst.

Ms Mo’s emotional response may in part be explained by the widespread assumption that Carrie Lam is the likely successor to C Y Leung as Chief Executive of Hong Kong. The pan-democratic camp has 326 seats out of a total of 1194 on the Election Committee and Ms Lam is perceived by them to be a pro-establishment candidate. The election campaign will be rough.

The pan-democrats themselves are also under pressure. They have been outflanked by the more radical localist parties and damaged by their oath-taking antics. The subsequent interpretation by Beijing of the Basic Law and the potential disqualification of Legco members, see above, could deprive the pan-democratic camp of their veto power over the passage of legislation.

The current state of affairs in the governance of Hong Kong is indeed lamentable and bad for the city. That prompts the question of what can be done by way of improvement.

Tackling the easiest first, Legco, the answer is not a lot. To date Legco members have shown themselves to be incorrigibly incompetent and self-indulgent. The immediate prospect of the loss of veto power may make the passage of legislation easier but it will not improve supervision of the Government. The only hope is that over time a more mature political generation will emerge.

As for the Government, policy-making and the execution thereof must be more clearly focused on the interests of Hong Kong people – all of them.

Possibly governments would perform better if they had a mandate. An election determined by more than 3,000,000 votes is far superior, however candidates are selected, to a fix by a mere 1,200. The rejection of the bill based on Article 45 of the Basic Law that would have allowed a general vote in the 2017 election was a catastrophic political misjudgement by the pan-democrats.

Attitude, generally and governmentally, is also a problem. Recently, I have heard many people say that the next Chief Executive must be more effective in standing up to Beijing, a sentiment that appears at once negative, combative and unconsidered. Better and more constructive it would be to stand up for the people of Hong Kong.

However it is achieved, a transformation in the quality of government is urgently needed. Otherwise, the influence of Beijing on the management and direction of the city will be ever more intrusive and resented.

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