KONGThe 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.