29 January 2020
Carrie Lam has insisted that community dialogue sessions shouldn’t be seen as PR stunts amid the current unrest in the city, but not everyone is convinced. Photo: Reuters
Carrie Lam has insisted that community dialogue sessions shouldn’t be seen as PR stunts amid the current unrest in the city, but not everyone is convinced. Photo: Reuters

Why there aren’t high hopes over Lam’s dialogue platform

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has scheduled a meeting with District Councilors on Wednesday evening to listen to their views, but the pan-democratic political parties have vowed to boycott the event.

Pro-establishment lawmaker Alice Mak Mei-kuen, who represents the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, has also stated that she has no time to do any schmoozing with the chief executive today.

Meanwhile, the Policy Innovation and Coordination Office (PICO) sent an email to civil servants on Monday announcing the establishment of the “Dialogue Office”.

Headed by Warner Cheuk Wing-hing, former permanent secretary for innovation and technology, the Dialogue Office will be charged with coordinating programs relating to the community dialogue platform initiated by the government and handling suggestions put forward by the non-governmental sector on the issue.

The administration has stressed that there is a limited time frame for the work of the Dialogue Office. But, according to a source, the dialogue platform for which the new office is responsible is expected to last many months and that it will involve dozens of dialogue sessions, with the public attendance at each session expected to be at least 100.

The source described the dialogue platform in the community as a “sustained and massive” initiative.

At the same time, a government figure has reiterated that the chief executive’s closed-door meeting with DC members today is just a “chat” with the district councilors, because once the platform formally kicks off, the chief executive and her principal officials are going to “reach out to the community and face citizens”.

And since there are a lot of things to attend to when it comes to preparing for these dialogue sessions, such as finding the right venues which have enough room for more than a hundred people and will also ensure the personal safety of the officials in attendance, it became necessary to set up an separate body (i.e. the “Dialogue Office”) to take care of the task.

Meanwhile, we have news that the government is going to hold at least one dialogue session within this month, and then decide how to improve on it afterwards based on practical experience.

It is because the authorities are aware of the fact that public grievances against the administration are still acute, and therefore government officials might not receive a warm welcome in the community at this point.

On Tuesday, Lam announced that the government will hold the first session of its open dialogue next week to enable people from all walks of life to express their views.

Under the approach outlined by the administration, there will be three forms of dialogue sessions. One type will be open for all citizens to sign up to participate, and each session could have 100 to 200 people. If too many people register in advance, attendees will be chosen by lot. The first of such sessions will take place next week.

A second type of arrangement will see citizens being randomly chosen to take part in the dialogue. This type would be relatively more representative than the first with people free to register.

The third format is in-depth dialogue with people from different sectors, with each session of this kind attended by about 20 members of the public, Lam said.

The initiatives notwithstanding, a political figure has voiced skepticism, saying the Dialogue Office may be caught up in the usual bureaucratic mindset that prevails among civil servants.

It is difficult to see any new element in the initiative, the person said, adding that the proposed dialogue sessions could end up being a repetition of the public consultation exercises seen in the past ahead of annual policy speeches of the chief executive.

Whether the Hong Kong government can achieve a major rebound in popularity with the dialogue platform just like French President Emmanuel Macron achieved following his nationwide debates after the Yellow Vest protests in the country, it would depend a lot on the attitude of the principal government officials in accepting public opinion, the source said.

The person warned that the dialogue platform could backfire on the government if the principal officials don’t pay serious heed to the views expressed by members of the public or adopt an indifferent attitude in following up on the citizens’ views after listening to their voices.

This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 17

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.