It is Time for Hong Kong’s Politicians to Grow Up

The late, renowned genius, Albert Einstein, has been credited with the insight that a definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. But the attribution is unclear. It is equally possible the author was an unusually sagacious creator of fortune cookie messages.

These considerations notwithstanding, the insight is invaluable if often ignored. In Hong Kong it should guide our entire political class, the majority of whom, government and non-government alike, have been engaged in repetitive and unproductive behaviour for 20 years.

It is time to learn from experience, to adapt to differing circumstances, to be flexible, even creative. In short, it is time to grow up.

Consider for one moment, the Government’s record in the area of leisure and entertainment. It is apparent from the latest incident they can’t even manage a Ferris wheel. History should have been their guide.

They have had huge problems and delays with the West Kowloon project that are still unresolved. They will recall the public concerns over the arrangements for Hong Kong’s Disneyland, and before that the fiasco of the Harbour Fest in 2003.

These experiences should have provided them with sufficient competence to manage a fairground ride, or failing that, the wisdom to ask, or hire, somebody who could. It has required the intervention of Hong Kong entrepreneur, Alan Zeman, to sort out the mess.

Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s Government is burdened with a strong sense that it always knows best, coupled with reluctance to challenge vested interests – taxi drivers, property developers, the Heung Yee Kuk, the list goes on. And they have shown almost zero ability to learn lessons from their failures.

To be fair, Carrie Lam has committed her Government to addressing grass roots concerns over education and other social issues. It remains to be seen how these policies develop.

And then there are the pan-democrats. They have yet to grasp that a state of constant outrage – government and all its plans are appalling, Beijing is evil, demonstrations are the solution to everything – is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Important issues become indistinguishable from trivia.

Respect, such as it is, is lost. The outcome is public regard that ranges from indifference to contempt.

The pro-government/establishment/Beijing sympathizing bloc in Legco, who occasionally resemble a flock of not-very-intelligent sheep, lack a coherent role and a distinctive voice. Their brand is defined by allegiance to their masters in Beijing and Hong Kong.

The challenges Hong Kong faces are not unique. The ever-increasing cost of housing is an issue in cities around the world. So, too, is the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the plight of a squeezed middle class.

In dealing with these issues, Hong Kong has many advantages. These include, but are not limited to, no government debt (indeed vast wealth), a highly educated and hard-working population, good infrastructure and an internationally minded business and entrepreneurial caste.

Some may argue that adjusting to the reversion of sovereignty in 1997 has been an impediment to Hong Kong’s commercial and economic development. Possibly.

Others claim that the Basic Law, the constitution of the HKSAR, is unworkable. Nonsense. It is a weak excuse for the paralysis and political incompetence of the political class.

Here are a few suggestions for improvement.

The primary focus of the Government, the administration and the members of Legco should be social and grass roots issues.

If there are significant, even radical, moves to provide affordable social housing, to care for the elderly and provide basic services for the disadvantaged, to improve Hong Kong’s education, including the worst schools, then people may not love either the local government or the one in Beijing, but they will certainly be less disgruntled than they are now.

For the establishment bloc in Legco, this will require the creation of vigorous social policies.

They need to build a following in the community based not on distinctions of being pro- or anti-Beijing but on the creation of a policy agenda that matches people’s needs. Building community support is what political parties are supposed to do.

Much the same applies to the pan-democrats, for whom the challenges may be more significant.

They are fragmented (too many insignificant parties). They have been obsessed with democratic development, almost to the exclusion of other policy issues. They have been blighted by Legco ‘personalities’, who have had no idea how to operate effectively in a legislative chamber.

Heresy, perhaps, but democratic development in Hong Kong may fare better if the pan-democrats turn their attention to other issues. Time for serious policy making.

As for the Government, they need to be braver in challenging vested interests, interests that are embedded in the formal political system – functional constituencies, Exco – and no less advantaged informally through lobbying. It will be difficult, not least because some of the interests to be challenged may have friends in Beijing. But it will be necessary and the Government, as previously noted, must act fast.

It may be a rude shock to many members of Hong Kong’s political caste, but it is time to act like grown-ups.

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