Accountability but not to the people
 
Saturday, May 4, 2002
HONG KONG The fifth anniversary on July 1 of Hong Kong's handover to China will coincide with the implementation of a recently announced radical change in the structure of Hong Kong's administration. It is unfortunate timing. The new system reflects the worst aspect of post-1997 Hong Kong, taking government further away from the concept of self-rule embodied in the slogan "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong" which it thought it had been offered by China.
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That is not to suggest that things generally have gone downhill since the handover. The economy has been weak but that has been more the result of external circumstances and the currency's peg to a strong U.S. dollar than to the government, whose budget deficit has provided a cushion against recession. Faults such as caving into the interests of the richest businessmen and handing out contracts on a less than transparent basis have tarnished Hong Kong's image but not yet had major economic impact.
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The problem is at the political level. Hong Kong is seeing scant direct intervention by Beijing but is feeling the spread of mainland-style authoritarian attitudes. The handover should have meant the dilution of the colonial authoritarian system through wider local participation in government and increase in accountability to the public. The reality has been the opposite. Other parts of Asia learned from the financial crisis that lack of openness and accountability led to cronyism, corruption and the triumph of narrow over national interests. But Hong Kong is increasing personal at the expense of institutional power.
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Taking a cue from Orwell, the administrative changes have been dubbed the "accountability system." From July, the 11 most important posts under the chief executive will cease to be held by career civil servants who could be moved around departments but not be fired. Instead, they will go to individuals appointed by the chief executive, paid gigantic salaries and holding office at his pleasure.
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This system is claimed to be similar to the appointment of cabinets in other countries. But in Hong Kong the chief executive is chosen by a tiny franchise. The incumbent, Tung Chee-hwa, was unopposed for a second term despite opinion polls persistently showing high public dissatisfaction with his performance.
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Tung's appointees will owe their "accountability" not to the legislature, not to the public at large, not even to the detailed codes of ethical conduct of the civil service. They will owe their accountability and loyalty to Tung as surely as did Indonesian ministers to former President Suharto.
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This centralization of power in the hands of the chief executive and his immediate circle fits with previous post-1997 trends: the marginalizing of the legislature, the abolition of district-level representative government and a trend toward increased secrecy. Most important of all was the destruction of the autonomy of the Court of Final Appeal, when the government went squealing to Beijing to overturn a court ruling against it on right of abode.
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Continued harsh treatment of abode claimants, many of whom are long-term residents, continues to testify to the arrogance of an officialdom that reacts viciously to attempts to check its power or dispute its authority.
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The administrative changes have little to do with accountability or efficiency. They stem from the desire of the chief executive and his circle to have more direct control over the bureaucracy. The changes also downgrade the chief secretary, hitherto the second-ranked government post. Until she was forced out last year, this was held by Anson Chan, a woman widely acknowledged to be more popular and more competent than Tung.
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The chief executive was a well-connected but none-too-successful businessman who had no previous administrative or political experience before being picked by Beijing. He is seen as well-meaning but the combination of his paternalistic views and the arrogance and lack of accountability of many personal appointees around him was cause for concern even before the latest changes were unveiled.
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The government has also announced that it is awarding the finest harborside site left in Hong Kong to itself for a huge central headquarters - at a cost, including lost sales land revenue, of $3 billion. Centralizing power and spending money on itself is an appropriate metaphor for the fifth anniversary.
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International Herald Tribune
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