COVID-19 a wake-up call for us to take governance seriously

August 31, 2020 08:22
Photo: Reuters

Picture this – twenty or so labourers squatting under the blazing sun, right as the clock strikes twelve.

Or this – a government with so shabby a PR drive that it ended up convincing the public that an otherwise scientifically reasonable (albeit disputable) programme (universal testing) is in fact a political conspiracy.

Or this – an administration staffed by officials who are preoccupied more with verbal jostling, than assuaging the public of (plausibly unfounded) worries about its quarantine and social distancing protocol.

You’d picture all of this, but you may not picture all of this happening in a city that has – or at least had – been amongst the world’s finest in its quality of its civil service and governance. For a good majority of the two decades after its handover, Hong Kong’s government had long been touted as the exemplar for mainland Chinese officials to learn from, with the former colony’s heavy emphasis upon transparency, accountability, and meritocracy viewed by many as the core tenets of its success – indeed, of any government’s success.

There’s always been something curious – not quite right, that is – about the city’s ascendancy in international rankings. Yes, its civil service is highly qualified from a technocratic point of view; yes, its cabinet is often well-staffed by highly educated individuals (albeit with a distinctly political tinge at places, and questionable choices at others). Yet the city’s masses remain disillusioned – disillusioned with the skyrocketing prices, disillusioned by the monolithic economy whose ebbs and flows seem more dependent upon the whims of the two great superpowers than on the city’s 7.4 million, and disillusioned as they reside in one of the most unequal cities in the developed world. Hong Kong’s administrators and bureaucrats excel in every regard in ticking the checkboxes, yet something is amiss: their qualifications do not translate to subjective feelings of empowerment, or the objective indicators of a flourishing, equitable society.

Some have attributed this to the political structures underpinning the city. Others have faulted the conglomerates and oligarchs running the show. Perhaps it’s the vested corporate interests and landed gentry; perhaps it’s the city’s unique lack of political talent; perhaps it’s the intransigent politicking that goes on between careerist politicians in the Legislative Council.

For all the blaming and shirking of responsibility, it’s somewhat bizarre that a critical issue has yet to take central stage in the city: the issue of governance. More specifically, a government that is responsive, accountable, and dynamic. The hamartia of the administration is not only its being hopelessly out-of-touch with the everyday man, but also its oblivion to public perception and eminently reasonable scepticism towards its decision-making processes.

Why is this the case? There are plenty of reasons.

Firstly, the administration is propped up by a bureaucratic structure that largely rewards risk-aversion whilst discouraging policy innovation. Civil servants are promoted for their not making any mistakes, instead of for potentially exceptional and brilliant ideas. The bolder the recommendation, the more drastic the change, the likelier it is that the advanced proposal would tread on somebody’s toes, or inadvertently cross the many (and still increasing) tacit redlines that unofficially bound government policies. More importantly, the lived experiences of downtrodden and Hong Kong’s “underbelly”, so to speak, are unlikely to be incorporated as key performance indicators – after all, the subaltern does not, as Spivak puts it bluntly, speak. The little that is spoken is instead couched in the dazzling pseudo-scientific management studies jargon, and is detached from the wider masses in terms of subjective perceptions and objective reality. Generalist civil servants lack the technical expertise to harmonise and work with technocratic experts; technocrats, on the other hand, are ill-equipped to undertake holistic assessments and planning of policies. Above all, the lack of synergy and mutual trust between the political appointees and the civil service render it deeply unlikely for any conducive political-bureaucratic partnerships to be formed in the long run.

Secondly, our leading officials are structurally incentivised to prioritise serving established networks of interests in the city, as opposed to its people. Whether it be the de facto revolving door between the business sector and the government, or the heavy skewing towards mercantilism of the 1,200-strong Chief Executive Election Committee, the means through which the administration’s leader is elected remains fundamentally disjointed from the collective realities inhabited by 99% of the city’s population. This is not to say that a zealously redistributionist administration is therefore the solution – instead, what is sorely missing is a group of individuals who could navigate and expand the converging zone of the Venn Diagram: where business interests could meet the interests of the general public, and the city’s long-term development. This could only be attained through reforming the composition of the Election Committee, as well as emancipating seats within the Legislative Council from corporate capture. Fundamentally, whilst universal suffrage is no panacea, it remains a potent and invaluable partial solution (provided that further checks could be installed in ensuring a level and fair playing field) to the city’s woes.

Thirdly, Hong Kong’s governance has long been neglected in favour of trenchant partisan and ideological debates. Yet I dare say that for a vast majority of the city’s population, it is not high politics that most resonates with or captures their imagination – it’s instead the hugely pertinent, yet oft-overlooked questions of whether their “rice bowls” could be secured amidst a global recession; their children could receive an education that does not pale in comparison against many second-tier cities of the world; and their fortunes insured against the inevitable and impending mechanisation of labour. These questions, by the way, are innately political – to de-politicise them and dismiss the structurality of their root causes, would be akin to “covering one’s ears in stealing the bell”, a Chinese idiom that perhaps best visualises the ludicrousness of such self-deception. It is high time for Establishment politicians to hold the administration to account – Pro-Establishment and Opposition parties alike must step up to the challenge of offering comprehensive and well-thought-through governance visions in juxtaposition to what’s on offer by the administration. Sycophancy and kowtowing could get one very far in one’s political career, but cannot be the substitute for quality governance.

Beijing has every incentive to ensure that Hong Kong is well-governed – the reasons for this extend beyond a matter of symbolic pride for the 1.4 billion strong state of which Hong Kong is a part; there’s also the economic gains and political legitimation associated with greater stability and public satisfaction with governance. Yet it behoves all parties to make a concerted pitch, that the way forward for the city requires organic bottom-up empowerment of folks on the ground, as opposed to the top-down imposition of orders that are neither cognizant, nor mindful of the everyday needs of Hong Kong’s citizens.

COVID-19 was a wake-up call. It’s high time that we answer it.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review