17 October 2019
The latest government material on the election bill (left) features a mock ballot paper with three candidates on it. Another leaflet suggests that protests are a problem and the election bill can lead to changes. Photo: GovHK
The latest government material on the election bill (left) features a mock ballot paper with three candidates on it. Another leaflet suggests that protests are a problem and the election bill can lead to changes. Photo: GovHK

Election bill can never solve HK governance woes

The government is pitching the 2017 election bill with two major selling points: 1) We can “pocket it first” and optimize it later, and 2) the political reform can be a silver bullet for Hong Kong to cast off its intractable governance woes once and for all.

The logic is simple: the current chief executive – selected by a small circle of 1,200 election committee members – is vulnerable to all sorts of fault-finding from directly elected lawmakers as he lacks legitimacy and the mandate to lead. But if the future leader is determined through “one person, one vote”, then who will dare to question and obstruct leadership?

There are two reasons why the government’s logic is wrong.

The government is glossing over the CE’s constitutional duty that no matter how he is selected, he shall be accountable to all Hongkongers – not just the election committee members – as stipulated in the Basic Law. Also, if universal suffrage is implemented in 2017, it’s a sheer falsity that Hong Kong can lift itself out of its current predicaments.

The fact is that in today’s legislature, those who are paralyzing governance are not just members of the pan-democratic bloc. When it comes to their own interests or that of their functional constituency, pro-establishment lawmakers are equally vigorous and unyielding.

They have, for instance, stopped Leung Chun-ying from scrapping the arrangement that allows offsetting severance and long-service payments with an employee’s accrued benefits from Mandatory Provident Fund schemes. I see no reason they will soften their stance on these issues even if the next CE is selected in a different way.

As for democrats, who are under pressure to live up to their supporters’ expectations, I can also guarantee that they won’t become obedient or cooperative simply because the CE gets more votes than they do. One example is that if the next CE seeks to enact Article 23 of the Basic Law without first establishing a common consensus, there will be fierce objections from them just like before.

The crux of the problem is the underlying deformity in the way the legislature is formed and the dire absence of synergy between the legislative and executive branches on how to foster productive governance.

Another fact is that “one person, one vote” won’t make the next CE legitimate to numerous Hongkongers who reject the prescreening before voting arrangement. (Public opinion polls indicate 40 percent of the respondents are against the bill.)

We can conclude that the popularity of the next CE can hardly be higher than his predecessors like Tung Chee-hwa or Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, both of whom once rode high on popularity ratings during the honeymoon periods at the start of their terms.

My point is that current difficulties – like CE’s lack of mandate as well as hindrance from the Legislative Council – are just part of the governance crisis that is gripping Hong Kong.

I would like to spare some paragraphs on good governance for our readers to compare these standards against the status quo in Hong Kong.

The definition of good governance may vary, but according to a document from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, eight key elements underscore good governance: participation, transparency, rule of law, responsiveness, consensus, equity and inclusiveness, effectiveness and efficiency as well as accountability.

The World Bank has its own governance rating method. Its Worldwide Governance Index gauges the performance of all economies with a set of criteria ranging from voice and accountability, political stability, government effectiveness, regulatory quality and rule of low to control of corruption.

In 2013, Hong Kong received impressive marks of over 90 in four aspects including government effectiveness (95.69) and regulatory quality (99.52). The drag on Hong Kong’s good governance, on the other hand, is mainly voice and accountability (69.19) and political stability (74.41).

Hong Kong’s overall high marks in the World Bank ranking is a stark contrast to how many locals feel over the past two years.

This perception gap is telling us, to outsiders doing business here, the territory’s governance and livability (security and public services, in particular) is still world-class, but for locals who call Hong Kong their homes, Hong Kong is getting notably worse.

The pan-democratic camp is now a convenient scapegoat as if all these difficulties have nothing to do with Beijing’s policies and Leung’s own inadequacies.

Let’s imagine that if most democrats are voted out in the next Legco election as Leung wishes so that lawmakers will merely rubber-stamp all bills and funding proposals for speedy passage and implementation, can we call that good governance?

Don’t forget that there are other factors like transparency, voice and accountability, equity and inclusiveness, etc. Without these, can we rest assured that Hong Kong’s rule of law and zero tolerance to corruption, also vital aspects of good governance, will stay intact?

The first step is to understand that inadequate mandate and Legco barriers the current administration faces are but part of the problems in Hong Kong’s overall governance, and the election bill can hardly be a remedy.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 13.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government