22 January 2019
The ground-floor foyer of the Office of the Chief Executive. The first thing Hong Kong's next leader should do is rebuild trust in the government. Photo: Internet
The ground-floor foyer of the Office of the Chief Executive. The first thing Hong Kong's next leader should do is rebuild trust in the government. Photo: Internet

Three things the next chief executive should do right away

Now that Beijing’s formula for tightening control over Hong Kong has been repudiated with the defeat of the election reform bill, it’s not going to shrink from using the 2014 white paper to keep a tight rein on its residents.

But Hong Kong people can reasonably demand a high-caliber leader in the absence of democracy and universal suffrage even as they deal with Beijing’s controversial reinterpretation of “one country, two systems”.

That person must be able to heal social divisions, improve livelihoods and ensure Hong Kong’s continued stability and prosperity.

The question is who is qualified to take the role and to what extent.

To be sure, Leung Chun-ying is not that person.

Leung has shown he is incapable of restoring public trust, with his election promises either unmet or broken.

It’s clear he is doing his best to keep his job but effective governance is the last thing on his mind.

I see no possibility that he will improve Hong Kong’s situation in the two years before his term expires.

Governance will be a key challenge for Hong Kong’s next leader but it’s only as important as Beijing thinks.

So, the central authorities have to understand Hong Kong’s well-founded systems and allow them to work instead of trying to dismantle them under a new surrogate.

That means Beijing should give the next chief executive enough power and leverage at least comparable to those conferred on Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first post-colonial leader, in the early days of his term.

It has been 10 years since Tung left office in disgrace and Hong Kong has had two leaders in that time. Both have had serious governance issues.

It will take time before the policies of the new leader begin to show results, so it’s clear the groundwork has to come early.

There are three things the next chief executive should do immediately.

1) Implement the recommendations of former chief justice Andrew Li regarding conflict of interest

The final report by an ad hoc panel created in the wake of the Donald Tsang misconduct investigation recommends that Hong Kong chief executives no longer enjoy immunity under Section 3 of the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance.

It proposes legislation to criminalize the act of offering unlawful advantages to the chief executive.

2) Overhaul the political appointment system and the Executive Council

This will pave the way for a fresh crop of cabinet ministers and principal officials, alongside a reinforced accountability regime that will severely penalize misconduct including mandatory public apologies and resignations.

3) Revamp the Mandatory Provident Fund policy on long service pay and accrued benefits

That will remove an onerous system that allows offsetting of severance and long service payment with accrued MPF benefits.

(Anna Wu retired from the Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Authority chairmanship with a highly critical parting shot over the policy.)

In his election campaign, Leung pledged to adopt Li’s recommendations to help ensure future chief executives are clean and upright.

But three years later, he continues to hedge his bets, saying he needs time to study the issues in a larger context.

Hong Kong’s colonial governors were not subject to anti-corruption laws but that fact is no reason incumbent officials should be exempt.

The government’s inaction looks suspicious, especially when investigations involving Donald Tsang, former anti-corruption chief Timothy Tong and Leung himself are still under way.

As for the cabinet overhaul, my observation is that Hong Kong does have talent but many are unwilling or unable to join the government.

The present crop is unremarkable, except for the likes of Secretary for Food and Health Ko Wing-man and Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung (although as a professor Cheung should head the Education Bureau).

I think the public will have a fair assessment of top officials, especially Secretary for Development Chan Mo-po and Secretary for Education Eddie Ng.

The Executive Council is not much better. Two cabinet members – Barry Cheung and Franklin Lam resigned in 2013 and many others are much disliked by the public.

In order to attract the right talent, Hong Kong needs the support of Beijing.

Except in some sensitive posts, consideration should be based only on competence and integrity. The door must be kept open for middle-of-the-road candidates or even moderate democrats.

Finally, the chief executive must have the mettle to confront vested interests in the business sector.

All this work could be done in phases with a flexible transition period to manage its impact.

This article is excerpted from two columns that appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 3 and 10.

Translation by Frank Chen 

[Chinese version 中文版 1 2]

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Crowds gather outside the Central Government Offices. Hong Kong’s social divisions have deepened over constitutional reform. Photo: Internet

Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government

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