I had identified five pillar elements — rule of law, autonomy, authority, good performance, and extensive public consultation — as the factors that underpinned the commendable governance of Hong Kong during the British colonial era.
The city’s well-founded systems, including rule of law and public consultation channels, have been preserved after the transfer of sovereignty to China.
Common misgivings about Beijing’s pledges notwithstanding, the special administrative region’s first chief executive — Tung Chee-hwa — was genuinely favored by the masses back then, even though he was selected by a small circle of election committee members.
Upon taking office, Tung’s popularity rating stood at 64.5, according to the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Programme. The rating was better than the highest mark of 64.1 that the last British governor, Chris Patten, enjoyed during his tenure.
Meanwhile, Tung’s successor Donald Tsang Yam-kuen recorded an even stronger score as he garnered a rating as high as 72.3 upon taking the reins.
All these prove that Hongkongers were not servile toward the British, nor do they feel nostalgic about the colonial times. Back then, people did place high hopes on Tung and Tsang.
But sadly, the two administrations failed to live up to the expectations.
Tung’s approval rating was 47.9 when he resigned from the top job in March 2005 (his lowest score was 36.2 when he tried to push the legislation of a national security law). Tsang’s mark was 44.4 when he finished his term in 2012 (probably dragged down by his suspected close links and receipt of favors from business tycoons).
Now, how about the incumbent leader Leung Chun-ying?
Leung started at 52.5, weighed down by reports of illegal structures at his Peak villa. Later, there were more scandals, including allegations that he received a hefty secret payout from an Australian firm — a case that brought up issues regarding conflict of interest.
His popularity soon tumbled below 50, and the most recent score stood at 42.6.
Hong Kong’s top leaders, either colonial governors in the past or chief executives after the handover, all have comprehensive powers. Thus, the public’s perception of them has a bearing on the image of the entire administration.
The economic downturn and the SARS outbreak in 2003 marked an inflection point in Hongkongers’ trust in Tung. His steadfastness over Basic Law Article 23, which formed the basis for a proposed national security legislation, dealt a further crippling blow to his popularity.
That year, for the first time, Hongkongers felt that Beijing’s shadow was everywhere. The Liberal Party’s last-minute reversal scuttled the passage of the law at the Legislative Council and prompted Beijing to put the territory on a tight leash.
This has, in turn, undermined the scope of discretion and power of the city’s top leader.
Being a “patriot”, Tung was distrustful of the secretaries and commissioners of the colonial era. But his second-in-command, the then Chief Secretary for Administration Anson Chan Fang On-sang, insisted that nothing needed to be changed.
The internal divergence overshadowed ineffective governance. To solve the issue, Tung introduced Accountability System in 2002.
To be fair, the first term principal officials appointed under the system did bring in some elites and professionals from outside the government (like the then Financial Secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung, Secretary for Education and Manpower Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury Frederick Ma Si-hang).
During the initial implementation, some officials stepped down (like Antony Leung and the then Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food Yeoh Eng-kiong) and proved the system’s genuine accountability.
But that didn’t last long. The system only existed in its name under Tsang, as he, who started his official career as an executive officer, went back to rely on civil servants for administration.
Now under Leung, the situation is even worse. We see that some members of his cabinet and principal officials are incapable and that they are there merely to make up the numbers. The principle of accountability is far gone.
Tung’s failure to deliver was partially due to bad luck (like the Asian Financial Crisis, bird flu and SARS), partially because of his rush for quick results (like the enactment of Article 23) and partially a result of his incapability.
In terms of personal integrity, just like his cliché, he is “whiter than white”. This is in stark contrast to Tsang, who would seek trivial personal advantages and benefits to an extent that even Hongkongers feel embarrassed. The public also lost faith in Leung’s integrity.
Tsang, who is of grassroots origin with pure Hong Kong identity and experience of the British governance, could have been the best chief executive.
His major fault was casting away the golden opportunity – at the beginning of his tenure when he was riding high in public polls – to challenge vested interests such as the property conglomerates and alleviate Hong Kong’s housing problems.
It is said that Tsang didn’t want to repeat Tung’s “85,000 flats a year” fiasco – an ill-fated policy that led to severe home price tumbles. But that is not an attitude of a responsible leader.
Tsang has let many Hongkongers down.
As for Leung, right from day one his popularity has been testing new lows, as scandals deepened people’s doubts. Even in non-political issues, he has come short of many election promises (like legislation on standard working hours, scrapping the MPF offsetting arrangement, eliminating subdivided flats, etc).
With his low popularity, people suspect that each and every policy rolled out by the government is of evil intent. Leung’s greatest problem is that people do not like him, let alone trust him. Some key officials of his cabinet are just equally incapable and untrustworthy.
LegCo President Jasper Tsang Yok-sing once commented that the government may be in the Tacitus Trap. He was referring to the purported argument of Roman Empire historian and politician Publius Tacitus that “No policy would please the governed if the government was unwelcome”.
It serves as a warning to those in power that if credibility is lost, whether they’re telling the truth or a lie, or doing a good or bad thing, it’s still bound to be taken as a lie or a bad thing.
Leung’s governance – constitutional reform and mainland affairs in particular – is exactly in such a plight. And any hope that the chief executive can somehow restore and rebuild his credibility during the rest of his term is but a pipe dream.
Regardless of whether the universal suffrage bill is passed or not, the prime objective for the next term government is to regain people’s trust. The premise for that can only be a chief executive that Hongkongers can take into confidence, a chief executive who will dare to face up to Beijing and uphold our core values and interests.
So, who then is qualified to lead the city by these standards? Will there be any more room for the city’s top leader to perform and deliver even as Beijing seeks to impose more shackles?
I will discuss this issue in my next column.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 27.
Translation by Frank Chen
[Chinese version 中文版]
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