Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had the misfortune of starting his annual policy speech in the Legislative Council just as US President Barack Obama was ending his annual State of the Union speech in the US Congress.
It was, of course, a pure coincidence that the two leaders delivered their annual policy speeches on the same day.
The television station I was watching had live images of both leaders making their speeches.
CY Leung occupied the main part of the screen, and viewers could hear him talking.
Obama could be seen in a small corner of the screen, but viewers could not hear what he was saying.
That didn’t matter to me, because a picture tells a thousand words.
It was evident even to the most unobservant viewer that CY Leung was reading to the people and Obama was talking to the people.
Perhaps it’s not fair to compare CY Leung with Obama, who is acknowledged the world over as a great orator in a class of his own.
CY Leung is a businessman turned politician with no real political training.
But you don’t have to be a great orator to connect with the people.
Ronald Reagan was not a particularly great orator, but he knew how to reach out, feel and touch the pulse of the people. And the people could feel his warmth and sincerity.
Obama looked into the cameras and made eye contact with millions of his fellow countrymen watching him on TV.
He used with great effect the final State of the Union speech of his presidency to reach out and speak with passion to the American people.
He spoke about his successes, failures and disappointments as president.
He acknowledged that bitter partisanship had made the US political system dysfunctional.
He called for unity to replace rancor so Americans would not fear the future in a fast-changing world that is threatening the role of the United States as the only economic and military superpower.
You could tell from his body language that his words came from the heart.
His political rivals predictably disagreed with many of the things he said, but even they grudgingly acknowledged Obama’s oratory skills.
CY Leung really needed to reach out, feel and touch the pulse of the people when he made his annual policy speech.
Hong Kong is in terrible political shape.
The mysterious disappearance of Hong Kong bookseller Lee Bo and four of his associates has rocked the very foundation of “one country, two systems”.
Almost everyone in Hong Kong believes mainland security agents abducted the five and spirited them across the border for interrogation about books critical of the mainland that Lee and his associates sold.
When the first bookseller, Gui Minhai, disappeared in Thailand, the Hong Kong media didn’t pay too much attention.
When three others disappeared in Guangdong, media attention was again not particularly high.
But finally, when Lee disappeared, the media gave it saturation coverage.
The difference was that he disappeared while in Hong Kong, not abroad or on the mainland.
The widespread belief that mainland agents had violated the Basic Law by coming here to abduct him shocked everyone, even those considered as pro-Beijing.
It knocked a deep hole in confidence in “one country, two systems”.
That hole of broken confidence got worse, not better, when mainland state TV showed Gui confessing that he had voluntarily returned to face justice for killing a female university student when driving while drunk in Ningbo 13 years ago.
Very few Hong Kong people would believe he went back for that reason, even though he was in fact involved in a car accident.
Confidence in “one country, two systems” worsened further when Guangdong’s security bureau confirmed it had Lee without explaining why.
Some people had hoped that Hong Kong could move forward, putting aside rancorous politics over democratic reforms after the democracy camp legislators voted down Beijing’s political reform framework for Hong Kong last year.
CY Leung said after the defeat of the reform framework that he would focus instead on livelihood issues.
But Hong Kong remains as politically divided as ever.
It is impossible to simply expect people to forget about democratic reforms.
The current political system has become so dysfunctional that it has made Hong Kong ungovernable in the context that virtually every government policy initiative is being blocked either by the democracy camp in Legco through filibusters and other means or challenged by citizens through judicial reviews.
It is laudable to focus on livelihood issues, but it is wishful thinking to believe that it can be done at the expense of democratic reforms.
The two are not mutually exclusive.
They can go, and in fact, need to go hand in hand.
It can be argued, as the central and Hong Kong governments have done, that since Legco had voted down Beijing’s reform proposal, it is pointless to devote so much time and energy again to political reforms.
CY Leung said on radio after his policy speech that it will only make sense to refocus attention on the reform framework when there is a consensus in Legco to pass it.
His implication was that there can only be consensus when the democracy camp no longer has enough Legco members to vote down the framework.
This argument has merit only if the central government is stubbornly insistent that there can be no relaxation of the framework to make it more acceptable to moderate democrats.
But where is the sense in insisting that Beijing’s reform framework is set in stone and cannot be changed?
Surely, politics is the art of compromise.
Hong Kong’s younger generations, which played a leading role in the push for greater democracy, have now grown radical and hostile not only toward the Hong Kong government but also the mainland.
Many young people prefer to be called Hong Kong people instead of Chinese.
The more radical among them are even pushing for independence or total self-rule, although that is, of course, a pipe dream.
The Occupy Central movement politicized them to the point that new political groups have formed that have declared they intend to fight for Legco seats in upcoming elections.
Some have already won seats in last year’s district council elections.
It was against this background of shattered confidence in “one country, two systems”, a broken political system mired in Legco filibusters, the unfulfilled desire of many Hongkongers for greater democracy, and the disenchantment of young people that CY Leung made his second-last annual policy speech.
He has about a year and a half left in his current term.
Like Obama, he could have used his speech to make eye contact with the people, reach out to them, remind them of his successes but also admit his failures, reassure them in a more convincing way that his administration is as shocked as the people about the disappearance of Lee, and urge for unity to move Hong Kong forward not only on livelihood issues but also on the larger issue of democracy.
The title of his speech was, after all, about fostering harmony.
But where was the language on harmony and unity?
Where was the attempt to heal the wounds in society?
They were missing.
Instead, he gave center stage in his speech to the “One Belt, One Road”, an initiative by President Xi Jinping to revive the ancient silk and maritime routes that linked China with Central Asia and the Middle East.
I don’t doubt that the “One Belt, One Road” initiative promises long-term opportunities for Hong Kong and the country.
But how can Hongkongers link the initiative to their short- and middle-term needs?
I am sure that nine out of 10 Hongkongers do not have a clear understanding of “One Belt, One Road” and how it can help their livelihood in the short and the middle term.
It needs to be understood that the people of Hong Kong are not so contented that they only need reassurance about their long-term needs.
The reality is that the people of Hong Kong are so discontented that they need assurances about their short-term needs.
But CY Leung devoted a good part of his speech to talking about extended pedestrian traffic lights so that the elderly have enough time to cross streets, less slippery floors in public toilets, more hospital beds and other matters that should be handled by lower-level officials, not the chief executive.
I know these issues are important and good for society as a whole, but they are trivial matters that should not form part of a leader’s annual policy speech.
The fact that the chief executive promised better traffic lights for the elderly, larger public toilets and more hospital beds in his policy speech shows that our highly paid bureaucrats in the civil service have failed badly in their jobs.
Does the Transport Department really need to be told by the chief executive to improve traffic lights?
Does the department responsible for public toilets really need to be ordered by the chief executive to make floors less slippery?
Our bureaucrats are hired to think for themselves instead of having the chief executive think for them.
I have said many times before that CY Leung has done far more than his predecessors in improving the lives of the people.
Many people, especially his political opponents, disagree with this, but it is dishonest to play politics to cover facts.
The facts are that it was CY Leung who stopped mainland women from having babies here to qualify for Hong Kong residency, limited Shenzhen residents to one visit a week to Hong Kong instead of multiple entries, imposed a two-can limit on baby milk powder for people exiting Hong Kong, toughened measures to cool the overheated property market, increased land supply to ease the housing shortage and introduced measures to help the poor.
These are facts, whether people want to recognize them or not.
But an annual policy speech should be an occasion to reach out and talk to the people, to instill hope in them with a vision that helps unite society.
I fully understand that it is an uphill struggle for CY Leung to talk about uniting society, let alone achieving it.
His political opponents not only dislike him, they despise him.
I have said before this hatred of him is unfair because it is not based on a credible foundation.
It is based on a hatred of the man, not his policies, but because they hate the man, they criticize his policies even though they would support these same policies if they came from another leader.
But although our rancorous politics makes it an uphill struggle for CY Leung to reach out to the people and urge for unity, he should still have done it to prove he stands taller than his opponents.
Obama did it to prove he stood taller than his opponents.
This article appeared in Chinese in the February 2016 issue of Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly. (Android, iOS)
– Contact us at [email protected]