Unlike the State of the Union speech American presidents make every year in the US Congress, Hong Kong’s annual policy address by our chief executives – and by British governors before the handover – are, by comparison, boring and uninspiring.
US presidents are, by nature, very good speech-makers. Recent ones, such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, excel in stirring up the emotions of their audiences.
But Hong Kong’s leaders, with the exception of former governor Chris Patten, are terrible at making speeches. They mostly read from prepared scripts without even making eye contact with their audiences.
We can see this every year when the chief executive and the financial secretary deliver their policy and budget speeches in the Legislative Council.
The speeches are so uninspiring that most legislators, and even policy secretaries, either nod off or play with their mobile phones.
I remember when Tung Chee-hwa was chief executive, the teleprompter malfunctioned during his policy speech in Legco. He was so dependent on reading from his script that he did not even know how to improvise.
There was a long period of embarrassing silence while he waited for the teleprompter to be repaired.
In a couple of weeks, on January 14, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying will be delivering his third policy address to Legco.
Is he politically savvy enough to realize that this upcoming speech will be the most important in his political career so far?
I don’t know the answer to that question, but if he doesn’t realize it, then he is not a very astute politician.
His speech will come just one month after the end of Occupy Central. The civil disobedience protest, which lasted for 79 days, has changed the DNA of politics in Hong Kong.
Those who think we can go back to business as usual, now that the roads have been cleared of protesters, are only deluding themselves.
We can never go back to business as usual. Hong Kong people have tasted civil disobedience. It has now become a part of our political DNA.
We have all seen unbelievable TV images of police firing tear gas at protesters, mobs with helmets, goggles and spiked makeshift shields surging toward baton-wielding police like two armies clashing, and youngsters using barricades to smash the doors of Legco.
These shocking images have sent an unmistakable message that the old political order must give way to a new one.
That is why the third policy address of Leung’s term as chief executive will be so crucial.
Hong Kong people will be expecting much more than business as usual from him. The old type of policy speeches won’t work any more.
Hong Kong people will want to know how he intends to change the old political order, to reunite our society, which has been so torn apart by Occupy Central, to reach out to the younger generation and to his political adversaries, and to appease those who feel that the central government has broken its promise to give Hong Kong real democracy.
Past policy speeches by our chief executives were mostly prepared by bureaucrats with input from all the government bureaus and departments.
They were boring, uninspiring and top-heavy with self-praise, with large parts wasted on how much good work the government had done for the people.
Our chief executives then just read out these scripts, looking up only to take sips of water.
The annual policy address is always televised live. It is a good opportunity for our chief executives to reach out to and to connect with the people.
But they never know how to do that. They read to the people rather than talk to the people.
Leung needs to understand that just reading to the people from a prepared script, using the old policy address format, will not work this time, because we are no longer the old Hong Kong. Occupy Central has changed the old Hong Kong forever.
To be sure, he faces a difficult task replacing the old order with a new one. The old order is too entrenched in our society.
The old order doesn’t just mean the political system. It means the entire way Hong Kong is run.
The demand for so-called genuine democracy was the spark for Occupy Central, but we all know the civil disobedience protest was about much more than just democracy.
It was also about the huge wealth gap, the disproportionate influence of the tycoon class, the lack of upward social mobility for the young, stagnant wages, unaffordable housing, rising rents, the ever-swelling flood of mainland visitors that has eroded our quality of life, and an unfair society that has become even more unfair in recent years.
As ordinary people and the younger generation slip down the social mobility ladder, the property developers continue to climb up the Forbes rich list.
A handful of tycoons control the daily lives of millions of people through their monopolies of the property sector, supermarket chains, pharmacy chains, the telecommunications sector, the electricity sector and even parts of public transport.
Tiny flats barely bigger than prison cells are now being built with an asking price of almost HK$2 million (US$260,000).
It is no wonder that the demand for genuine democracy provided a spark that caused Occupy Central to explode with such ferocity.
This old order is no longer tenable. The majority of Hong Kong people will not tolerate it indefinitely.
There is very little Leung can do to meet the demands of the democracy camp for so-called genuine democracy.
The central government and the National People’s Congress have said time and again the framework for Hong Kong democracy must fit into the Basic Law, the NPC decision, and the one country, two systems principle.
The democracy camp’s definition of genuine democracy amounts to virtual self-rule, which the central government will never allow.
Even though Leung is the chief executive, he must still follow the decisions of the central government.
It is disingenuous for the democracy camp to blame him for misrepresenting the democratic aspirations of Hong Kong people to the central government, which then led to the NPC issuing a very strict democracy framework for Hong Kong.
Surely, the central government doesn’t have to rely on Leung to reflect the sentiments of Hong Kong people.
If anyone or anything is to blame for the NPC’s strict political reform framework, I would put much of the blame on the Occupy Central movement’s threat of civil disobedience if Beijing did not bow to its democracy demands.
Even though there is very little Leung can do to meet demands for genuine democracy, there is a lot he can do to change the old order so Hong Kong society can became fairer.
Making Hong Kong a fairer society will, of course, not appease diehard democrats, who will still continue to press for so-called genuine democracy. But it will appease others who regard solving livelihood issues as a greater priority than pushing for democracy.
The chief executive’s policy address on January 14 must be a blueprint on how to change our society.
He must spell out clearly how he intends to improve upward social mobility for our younger generation, how to make housing more affordable, because the property cooling measures have not worked, how to make wealth distribution more equal, how to stop the tycoon class from controlling every aspect of our lives, and how to stop the flood of mainland tourists eroding our quality of life.
Leung must regenerate hope for ordinary Hong Kong people in his policy speech.
He must reinvent a new Hong Kong Dream for us, an achievable dream that will bring back the old Lion Rock spirit.
He will, of course, face much resistance from the old order, but he needs to face this resistance with toughness and determination.
Those who oppose changing the old order need to understand that Occupy Central was only the opening shot. If things don’t change, future shots could be even scarier.
As Occupy Central architect Benny Tai Yiu-ting warned, things could turn fiercer in the future.
Hong Kong’s younger generation believe they have no more hope. They believe the entrenched old order of tycoons and big business collude with bureaucrats to benefit themselves at the expense of ordinary people.
Leung must use his upcoming speech to shake away this belief and unveil a new Hong Kong Dream that people can believe in.
The democracy camp legislators have started a non-cooperation campaign to make it difficult for the Leung administration to govern. They need to think carefully about the wisdom of this.
If Leung uses his policy address to unveil new measures to make our society fairer, it would be political idiocy for the democracy camp legislators to use non-cooperation to prevent him from implementing his measures.
If they block his measures to make Hong Kong a fairer society, the people will know who is in the right and who is in the wrong.
Occupy Central has already eroded the popularity of the democracy camp. Many people believe the camp could face heavy losses in upcoming district and Legco elections.
Non-cooperation in Legco that hurts the livelihoods of ordinary people would further erode the popularity of the democracy camp.
This article first appeared in the January 2015 issue of Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly.
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