Time for Hong Kong to figure out a new governance direction

August 13, 2019 18:28
Our officials have underestimated the power of Hong Kong’s social resilience and economic creativity. Photo: Bloomberg

Since the beginning of June, Hong Kong has been gripped by escalating social tensions arising from the proposed revision of the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance.

I believe it is now time for the various sectors in society to calm down and together create an atmosphere that is conducive to dialogue. This will allow us to figure out a new governance direction that is in line with justice.

The major flaws in the governance of the SAR administration can be summarized into three:

First, over the last 22 years, our various chief executives and their principal officials often refused to be optimistic about the prospects of Hong Kong’s development during the process of policy formulation.

Like many business and professional elites in our city, our decision-makers in the government were deeply obsessed with the notion that Hong Kong was continuously threatened by a fiscal crisis.

And the reason why they thought so is that mounting social grievances were likely to result in more public expenditures.

Also, they believed that it was only a matter of time before our city would see a shrinking economy given the rapid modernization of mainland cities.

However, our government officials have underestimated the power of Hong Kong’s social resilience and economic creativity.

Second, the deeply entrenched and even stubborn financial doctrine of “keeping the expenditure within the limits of revenues” has dominated official thinking over the years, with our chief executives and officials still failing to adjust their mindset despite the intervention of the central authorities.

And as we can see, this doctrine of “spending within our means” has been applied to key policy areas such as housing, disparity between the rich and poor as well as social security measures that concern ordinary citizens the most.

Then third, the SAR government has been showing favor to the business sector over the years while overlooking the needs of disadvantaged groups, and has always been attempting to spend less on initiatives such as labor and social welfare, thereby exacerbating our society’s structural injustice.

In my opinion, Beijing can help Hong Kong deliver just governance in two ways.

First, when setting criteria for judging the job performance of our chief executive, Beijing should focus, among other things, on his or her ability to resolve our city’s structural injustice through public expenditures.

Beijing should also reverse the government-centric doctrine of “keeping the expenditure within the limits of revenues” and promote a new set of citizen-centric principles among SAR government officials, which can facilitate upward social mobility, and guarantee sufficient funding for housing, closing the disparity between the rich and the poor, social security measures, etc.

And second, Beijing should restrict the officials of the SAR government from getting too dependent on the business sector, formulate a reward-penalty mechanism of openness and transparency, and demand that officials reach out to the community for investigations and research, while it demands officials to publish reports regularly on the true state of affairs in society, as well as strictly enforce accountability.

I believe only by doing so can Hong Kong truly break out of its pattern of dysfunctional governance.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 10

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Dr Bryan Wong Pak-nung, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies, University of Bath, UK