How 'gotcha politics' is holding society back

March 07, 2019 11:42
Fearing that they would be made scapegoats if things go wrong in relation to government policy initiatives, Hong Kong bureaucrats are trying to avoid making big decisions, some observers say. Photo: Bloomberg

After former British colonial governor Murray MacLehose met with Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in Beijing in 1979 and was told that China was determined to reclaim its sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, the British began to prepare for their “glorious retreat”.

To achieve that, London pulled the same "trick" like it always did when preparing for decolonization, i.e. democratization.

It is against such historical background that the British government had made aggressive efforts at establishing a democratic system in Hong Kong, pressing ahead with initiatives such as district governance reforms and Legislative Council elections, starting from the 1980s up until the handover in 1997.

Democracy would certainly be no problem. Yet, since Britain was trying to counter China’s influence by introducing a western democratic system into Hong Kong, such strategy would inevitably provoke a fierce backlash from Beijing.

As a result, Hong Kong has ended up having a unique, if not totally weird, political culture after the 1997 handover.

First, there is no ruling party under the local political system, since the chief executive -- the city's top leader -- cannot have any political affiliation under the Basic Law.

As far as the principal officials are concerned, generally speaking, they must quit any political party membership before they join the government.

The direct consequence of this arrangement is that neither the chief executive nor his or her principal officials has any ally in the legislature, which means the administration is always fighting an uphill battle in securing votes for its bills, hence the difficulty in ensuring effective governance.

At the beginning of his second term in 2002, former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa introduced the so-called accountability system.

However, it didn't take long for Tung to notice an unintended result of the accountability system: virtually anyone can be held accountable for anything, giving rise to “gotcha politics”.

Under the prevailing “gotcha politics” environment, whenever an issue develops in the society, stakeholders, particularly lawmakers and media, have shown an obsession to getting to the root of the problem and finding out where the government has faults, and holding the feet of whoever has made mistakes to the fire.

As a result, it has become increasingly routine for members of the public to look at issues from a negative perspective.

Amid this situation, in order to play safe and avoid becoming the scapegoat for the administration’s failures, high-ranking officials who are vested with executive power have begun to play safe and are trying to avoid making decisions, passing on the buck to the Legco.

So what we end up having here is a bizarre system in which policy initiatives put forward by the government are often repeatedly scrutinized during every new Legco term, and decisions always deferred. This is holding the city back, affecting its development prospects.

This brings up the question: Is it not time for us to seriously review the democratic and political accountability system of Hong Kong?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 23

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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HKEJ contributor