19 March 2019
Anna Wu says the chief executive has the power but no mandate while lawmakers have the votes but little power under the current election regime. Photo: HKEJ
Anna Wu says the chief executive has the power but no mandate while lawmakers have the votes but little power under the current election regime. Photo: HKEJ

Anna Wu: The absurdities of HK politics and how to fix them

“In an election elsewhere, a candidate or aspirant needs to put forward his own platform before canvassing votes, but here in Hong Kong, some Election Committee members have already made up their minds, long before their choice could come out with her complete manifesto or policy agenda,” said Anna Wu, a veteran lawyer and non-official member of the Executive Council, the top advisory body for the chief executive.

“Candidates meet all sorts of interest groups and see what they can trade with each other, usually election promises for votes, and that’s exactly why there’s no serious, independent platform as you will have to change it often when meeting different people,” she told the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly.

The 66-year-old Wu has been in politics and civil service for decades but just like ordinary Hongkongers, she doesn’t have any say in how the next top leader is chosen.

“All candidates are now busy stumping for votes but no one has bothered to engage people like you and me who are not voters. We are useless to them.”

A veteran liberal

Yet, Wu had been at the core of major policymaking as well as controversies during the British rule and following the handover.

She was a Legislative Councilor from 1993 to 1995 and had over the years sat in or chaired a long list of statutory bodies including the Consumer Council, Law Reform Commission, Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre, ICAC’s Operations Review Committee, Equal Opportunities Commission, Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Authority, Competition Commission, etc.

“But I was always ready to pack up and quit any day when I was in these positions, so I did not have to please anybody.”

Wu became the “enemy of the people” when she agreed, at Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s invitation, to head a government review committee for the highly contentious national education curriculum when Hong Kong was embroiled in a massive protest in 2012.

“Some of my friends e-mailed me saying I sold them out, even before I could start looking at the issue.”

The Leung administration ultimately budged and shelved the curriculum in October that year after Wu’s conclusion which was against the launch of the subject.

She was one of only two members of the Leung cabinet that were steadfast not to sign an anti-Occupy Central statement. The other was Executive Council convenor Lam Woon-kwong.

Wu embarked on her political career on the HKU campus in the late 1970s when she spearheaded Hong Kong Observers, a pressure group that later groomed a few local politicians who are still active today.

In 1983, before Beijing and London sat down to discuss Hong Kong’s future, Wu led a group of her legal confrères to Beijing and met with the then director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, demanding human rights, rule of law and constitutional reform be manifested in the Joint Declaration.

They also assured mainland cadres that the legal sector would opt for autonomy, not independence, based on opinion polls that Hong Kong Observers held prior to the trip.

Vicious circle of vote and mandate

Fast forward almost two decades after the handover, and how does Wu, one of the first in the Hong Kong elite that advocated “one country, two systems”, feel about the status quo?

“I was quite idealistic back then, but I was not the only one… London and Hong Kong placed high hopes on Beijing, as people thought China’s politics and ideology would gradually move closer to Hong Kong and we might find resonance up north.

“No one has had the foresight that the situation could evolve so fast that China could become a world power within a short span of just a few decades [even without political liberalization],” she said.

Worse, Hong Kong today has been bogged down by protracted schisms by the shortcomings of its own system.

“The chief executive is not selected through suffrage, thus the top leader lacks the mandate to lead and the incentive to engage as well. But half of the legislature is elected via ‘one person, one vote’ and lawmakers have to answer to their respective electorate. Then we are in a unique impasse where the top leader has power but not mandate whereas the legislature has mandate but little power.

“The SAR has inherited the colonial era’s executive-led hierarchy, and article 74 of the Basic Law bars lawmakers from making bills regarding public expenditure, political structure or the operation of the government. When the legislature is hobbled, lawmakers have no other options to monitor the government, so many of them resort to filibustering or vetoing bills.”

The Basic Law provision is indeed a regression to pre-1997 when legislators were only barred from moving motions or issues relating to public expenditure.

Wu broached for discussion a bill concerning human rights and equal opportunities in 1993, something she could not have done if she was a lawmaker post-handover. Her bill led to the creation of the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1996.

Authority and inclusiveness gone

It may be baffling that, though the governor was appointed by London and Hongkongers could not have any input in the entire process, the colonial authorities were never beset with mandate or governance issues

“[Colonial governors] were all seen as paternal and few back then questioned their intent, like during Murray MacLehose’s 10-year tenure when he kick-started reforms including public housing and the founding of the ICAC. There was also a good arbitration mechanism in place.”

MacLehose also forged inclusive governance, reversing the previous governor’s clampdown on “subversive” groups like Hong Kong Observers. He invited Wu to join government committees in early 1980.

“Politicians like MacLehose had the wisdom to embrace dissidents and make them part of the establishment, rather than isolating or expelling them, which may in turn help them win more sympathy,” she recalled.

Open to the party

“Another way to resolve the present stalemate is to allow party affiliation for the chief executive, who is usually a lone person when pushing bills through the legislature. He will need his party members to form the cabinet, though Beijing is worried that a chief executive may become less controllable if he has more political power.”

Another obstacle is the party-list proportional representation voting, in which voters choose from several lists of candidates — those that appear on the list are from the same party and their total votes will pool to the party for Legco seats. Multiple candidates are elected through allocations to an electoral list.

Under such a regime, it may just need a few thousand votes to secure a seat, giving different factions within a big party the incentive to split.

Such arrangement was deliberately skewed when Beijing sought to suppress the Democratic Party, which became Legco’s largest party amid the surging phobia about Communism following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.

Back then, the pro-Beijing alliance, like the just-founded Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, was hard put to overturn the democrats’ monopoly.

Yet, one unintended outcome of the lower threshold, other than the fragmentation of the opposition, was that localists and separatist groups could also send people into the chamber.

The SAR government also has to navigate between rival interests to garner votes from numerous small parties.

“Perhaps Beijing should also consider letting its party members, now operating undercover in Hong Kong, disclose their identity… Of course, the prerequisite is a political party law that can make all activities transparent and candidates from each party can contest fairly in elections. The legislation can be done locally, rather than by the National People’s Congress,” Wu said.

This article appeared in the March issue of the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly

Joyce Lee contributed to this story

Translation by Frank Chen 

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Anna Wu has chaired a number of statutory bodies including the Competition Commission, Equal Opportunities Commission, Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Authority, etc. Photo: HKEJ

File photo shows Anna Wu fielding questions from the media as chairperson of a government panel on the review of the national education curriculum in 2012. Eddie Ng is shown behind her. Photo: HKEJ

Anna Wu (center) was among a few female lawmakers prior to the handover. Also seen in this file photo are Emily Lau (right), former leader of the Democratic Party, and Christine Loh, fomer chairwoman of the defunct Citizens Party. Photo: HKEJ

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