25 October 2016
Reforming Legco is more important than reforming the method for electing the chief executive. Photo: Reuters
Reforming Legco is more important than reforming the method for electing the chief executive. Photo: Reuters

To pocket or not to pocket? How HK could be governed better

Shortly, the Legislative Council will be voting on the method to elect Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017, and even though the citizens of Hong Kong as a whole cannot vote on it, the government is going all out to persuade them that it would be better to “make it happen”, to adopt the government proposal, which has Beijing’s blessing.

The strategy is obviously to put the pressure of public opinion onto the legislative councilors as they make up their minds what to do.

I agree that it is important for every single one of us to understand the issues and grapple with them.

We are engaged in a process that is going to shape our community for years to come.

Many people whose views I respect are on the “pocket it first” side — that is, that the deal on the table should be taken, as it is better than making no progress from the “small circle” method by which Leung Chun-ying became chief executive in 2012.

I have thought about this long and hard and decided that I cannot join this group.

The method of choosing the candidates remains rigid and almost certain to lead to a restricted choice.

Even worse, there is no clear promise that this will be a first step toward further change.

Furthermore, this rigid, Beijing-inclined system of selecting candidates runs a high risk of landing us with a grossly unsuitable chief executive, given that we are apparently not to be allowed a “none of the above” option.

The names being touted around now as possible candidates include people who have already held high office but then shown lamentable lack of political judgment or a failure to appreciate the requirements of integrity in the public service.

In the colonial days, senior civil servants who had “blotted their copybooks” in these sorts of ways would normally have been sidelined and not considered for further substantial advancement.

The Occupy phenomenon

For three months at the end of last year, we were gripped by the Occupy phenomenon.

It demonstrated many things. It showed us that a band of university students in their 20s had among them more charisma, guts, fortitude and eloquence than any political figure who had emerged in Hong Kong in the previous 40 years or so.

Unfortunately, as in some classical tragedy, they suffered from defects that undermined all: they had neither an appealing goal nor an effective strategy to achieve it.

Regrettably, they had nailed their colors to the mast of the unseaworthy vessel Civil Nomination.

There was never any explanation as to how this would be worked out in practice as a method of choosing the chief executive, and there was no compelling example of where this was in operation in any established system.

Back to the future, the 1980s

It is worth recalling some relevant aspects of the process in the 1980s that led to our present situation: the Sino-British negotiations and the drafting of the Basic Law.

Not quite 30 years have passed, and we live in the present, but a glance backward could be educational.

Although the Chinese “economic miracle” was underway, its spectacular trajectory was only visible to the most discerning, and China was a diffident player on the world stage.

Mainlanders were deeply impressed by Hong Kong and its achievements.

The aim was to keep it performing in exactly the same way as heretofore and, if there was some uncertainty as to what exactly it was that had brought about its success, the strategy became one of enshrining as much as possible of the features of contemporary Hong Kong in the provisions and promises of the Basic Law.

There was also great faith in the powers of the Hong Kong civil service.

It was, quite rightly, seen as efficient and effective, but almost magical abilities to weather any situation and create successes were ascribed to it.

The detailed negotiations were often difficult and exhausting and, consequently, not all loose ends were tied up.

There was an expectation that some things would have to be worked out later on.

This was consistent with the British cultural belief in “muddling through”: indeed, some wit once claimed that the motto of the British Hong Kong government had been Per ardua ad hoc.

What with one thing and another, Hong Kong went through the change of sovereignty with no detailed roadmap as to how it was to achieve the democratic development that had been promised.

Legco, the biggest problem

Let’s stay with the metaphor of a journey and a map.

It seems to me that Hong Kong has, as it were, embarked on a long and difficult journey yet has ended up driving round and round a relatively unimportant town that may not even be directly on the way to its final destination.

To my mind, it is a greater priority to right the Legislative Council than to come up with the ideal method to elect the chief executive.

There seems to be general agreement that the Hong Kong government is not as dynamic and effective as it used to be or as it needs to be.

High on the list of the reasons for this must be the obstructionism of Legco.

In the perception of the “good old days” that must have affected the direction taken by those who were charting Hong Kong’s future, the appointed members of Legco mainly worked smoothly together with the civil servants, particularly those in the administrative grade, to devise workable plans and policies that the community would find palatable.

The landscape was fundamentally changed by the advent of an elected element, the formation of relatively sophisticated political parties and the televising of proceedings and the attendant temptation to grandstanding.

None of the three chief executives who have led Hong Kong since the transfer of sovereignty has inspired rapturous admiration, but they have not stifled progress in the way that Legco has done.

Experienced civil servants could work out ways to work with and around successive chief executives, but Legco has proved a much tougher obstacle, and things will likely only get worse with the retirement of Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, the quick-witted and resilient president of Legco.

Tackling the Legco issues first would turn the current timetable upside down, but if it could be done, there would seem to be a chance to make a breakthrough.

Ideally, we would end up with something that looked much more like the legislatures in developed democracies.

The functional constituencies would be abolished, and the “ministerial system”, which at present does not of itself make much contribution to the cause of good governance, would find a proper place by introducing explicit links between ministers and political parties, with the most electorally successful party able to form a government responsible for the administration of Hong Kong’s internal affairs.

Logically, then, the chief secretary would become in effect the mayor of Hong Kong, which would have the added benefit of obviating the calls that are heard from time to time in favor of the creation of an additional post of mayor, which would surely just be wasteful, spending money unnecessarily and creating nothing but yet another layer of bureaucracy.

A different model for the chief executive

A good solution to the question of the method of election of the chief executive would, of course, still have to be found.

Here, a British model may be of assistance.

In Hong Kong, we became used to colonial governors who were active leaders, who were clearly managing the city.

There can, however, be another sort of governor, or governor general, who is placed in a territory by the sovereign power to represent its interests there.

There is no reason to try to start an argument about the relationship between China, the sovereign power, and Hong Kong, the special administrative region.

The basics of its design may, indeed, be considered a sort of stroke of genius, which was able to illuminate an entire way forward.

Some mainlanders may be spooked by calls for Hong Kong independence, but Hongkongers know that these really come from a tiny minority.

Once we begin to see the chief executive as analogous to a governor general, our situation becomes easier to deal with.

In seeking to fill the position, there is no anomaly in looking for a Hongkonger who is also “on the same page” as Beijing, who understands and is broadly sympathetic to the mainland’s way of looking at things.

He or she would stand back from the day-to-day activities of Hong Kong administration, occupying an important ceremonial and figurehead role, taking responsibility for external links and ready, in extreme cases, to act as the most significant link between Beijing and Hong Kong.

If this attitude could be adopted, much of the difficulty over the election of the chief executive should melt away.

It would be nice if the method of election were to be more democratic, but the detailed arrangements should not be a cause of such gripping anxiety to the community if the chief executive’s role were more circumscribed than at present.


There are essentially two approaches to consultation.

In the first, one party uses the consultation process as an opportunity to try every possible trick and stratagem to browbeat the other side into entire acceptance of a particular point of view.

In the second, the consultation process is a genuine period of give and take, with concessions made and acceptable explanations given until what is reached is a position that both sides find truly tolerable.

The government of Hong Kong is addicted to the first type of consultation.

The dangers of a divided community

It seems possible but not certain that, as regards the proposed electoral reform, a small majority of the public will agree with the government, but, nonetheless, there will be insufficient support from legislators for the proposal to pass.

Supposing something quite unlikely happened — enough democrats changed their minds and the proposal were passed — would this be good for Hong Kong?

In my view, not at all.

It would be different if it were only a very small minority of the public that had a different point of view from the government’s.

We know, however, that views are finely balanced and, most dangerous of all, young people are mistrustful of the proposal and, increasingly, of the government generally and of the institutions that are perceived as constituting the establishment.

It is natural and healthy that the young and their elders do not see things entirely eye to eye; it is part of the meaning and value of adolescence and part of the process by which progress is made.

It is, however, extremely dangerous if this cleavage has become deep and toxic.

The bitterness and cynicism of the young will be a constant undercurrent, invisibly breaking down social cohesiveness and from time to time openly manifesting itself.

It should be an urgent task of the government to convince the entire population of its openness to a range of views, of its concern for the common welfare and its loyalty to the best that Hong Kong stands for and to the values by which it defines itself.

Such broadmindedness, however, seems alien to the current government and not likely to be adopted by it.

Time to heal

Many years ago, my small daughter suffered a serious attack of gastroenteritis.

The doctor provided some effective medicine and, anxious because she had not eaten for days, I urged food on her.

Soon she was sick again, and I received a mild scolding.

“Madame [this was in Switzerland],” he said, “in cases of inflammation, the sovereign principle for healing is rest.”

Our community is certainly bubbling and boiling with inflamed emotions, conflicting senses of righteousness and an urge to emerge victorious.

In such a scenario, restraint is difficult, but would it not be for the best?

Might it not be appropriate simply to accept that there will be no obvious progress in the near future?

We may simply have to wait until our stars realign, perhaps until we have a different chief executive or at least a wiser group of courtiers surrounding him.

Hong Kong still has so many positives in its favour, not least the idealism and intelligence of its young people.

It is a community that over the past 50 years or so has triumphantly overcome numerous difficult challenges, and so, by application of patience as much as passion, why should it not be able to do so again?

This article was originally published by the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation.

It does not necessarily represent the views of the foundation.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Former assistant director of social welfare of HKSAR Government

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