16 September 2019
Nicholas Yang (L) has been given multiple posts under Leung Chun-ying's plan to make a renewed push for an Innovation and Technology Bureau. Photo: HKEJ
Nicholas Yang (L) has been given multiple posts under Leung Chun-ying's plan to make a renewed push for an Innovation and Technology Bureau. Photo: HKEJ

What lies behind Leung’s appointment of new tech advisor?

With pan-democratic lawmakers stymieing plans for a proposed Innovation and Technology Bureau, Hong Kong’s leader Leung Chun-ying has resorted to executive action to help revive his “technology dream”.

On Monday, Leung appointed Nicholas Yang as his advisor on innovation and technology and also named him as a non-official member of the cabinet.

Interestingly, Yang will also head a new advisory committee on innovation and technology that will replace an existing sector steering panel that is led by Financial Secretary John Tsang.

It is not clear whether Tsang will now play any role in the new body. 

This has sparked speculation over Leung’s motives behind the Yang appointment and whether it represents any power tussle within the city’s top leadership.

Meanwhile, critics also say that Leung has shown disrespect to the legislature through his latest action.

By appointing Yang to three roles, Leung has brought in a potential minister without discussing the matter with lawmakers.

The development will only encourage pan-democrats to block more bills in the future, such as the one on the 2017 electoral reform package. Meanwhile, Leung might have to bypass the legislature if he wants to implement his policies.  

Yang, who had been tipped as Leung’s top choice to head the proposed Innovation and Technology Bureau, is a former executive vice-president of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

His sudden appointment came just weeks after pro-democracy lawmakers used filibuster to block funding approval for the proposed Innovation and Technology Bureau. 

Yang quit PolyU in January and was said to be waiting to take over the new tech bureau once the Legislative Council granted the green light. He passed a personal background check by Beijing.

Now, questions are being asked why Leung was in such a hurry to appoint him as advisor. Yang will not collect any salary for his roles as advisor and committee chairman but will get a monthly honorarium for his role in the Executive Council.

Leung justified the appointment, saying the government needed to catch up on lost time with regard to setting the policy on technology development.

There is a pressing need to take forward the development of innovation and technology, Leung said, adding that Hong Kong cannot continue to lag behind its competitors. 

The Legislative Council has vetoed funding for the bureau twice in the past two years, but Leung plans to table the proposals again soon.

What has caught the attention of political watchers is that Leung has decided to reorganize the existing steering committee on Innovation and Technology, which is currently led by Tsang, and turn it into an advisory committee to be chaired by Yang.

In fact, the establishment of the new technology bureau and the advisory committee duplicates the current functions of several government bodies under the financial secretary.

Under the government organization chart, the financial secretary has long been responsible for the city’s technology, telecommunications and innovation policies, via the commerce and economic development bureau.

The bureau also oversees several technology-focused bodies such as information and technology commission, office of the government chief information officer, and office of the communication authority.

Now, if Yang is responsible for the overall technology policies and directly reports to Leung, what about the aforementioned government bodies which are also doing the same thing?

Looking at the way things are going, it is apparent that Leung aims to wrest back control of technology development work. It could be part of a power struggle with Tsang, after the chief executive failed to create a deputy financial secretary post three years ago.

As for Yang, it is too early to say whether he is suitable for the advisory post, but the controversies arising from the creation of his posts could make things difficult for him in securing the support of lawmakers on key policy initiatives.

Leung’s low popularity among the public could also crimp Yang’s ability to deliver.

While it may be soon to pass judgment, we can at least say one thing for sure — that this is certainly not the start that one had envisaged for Hong Kong’s technology development initiatives. 

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EJ Insight writer