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Hong Kong Endures, but Needs a Better Separation of Powers

By Philip Bowring - International Herald Tribune

HONG KONG - Three years after the handover, visitors still routinely ask what has changed. For Hong Kong people that is a largely irrelevant question. They are thinking about topical issues - housing, pollution, rights of abode, role of the legislature.

Hong Kong considers itself entitled to expect not just the continuation of old freedoms but also competent government untainted by cronyism and accountable to the inhabitants.

It has recently seen a rash of public protests against the administration of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, some aimed at specific policies, others at the general conduct of government.

The Legislative Council has ignored Mr. Tung's pressure and censured the performance ofofficials of a scandal-plagued housing authority. Opinion polls, for what they are worth, persistently show his standing to be low despite an amiable image and a huge increase in the size of his public relations machine.

President Jiang Zemin has found it necessary to call on Hong Kong tycoons to support Mr. Tung. Concerned about Hong Kong's image overseas, the government recently hired PR consultants Burson-Marsteller to help improve it.

The economy is recovering from the Asian crisis but the recession has left a legacy of discontent. Unemployment at5 percent is still high by local standards. The fall in property prices from the ludicrous levels of 1997 has hurt many owners.Pollution, which has especially damaged Hong Kong's image overseas, cannot be solved rapidly and needs cooperation from smoke-belching mainland factories.

Analysis of current discontents shows one common thread: an erosion of trust between the executive and bureaucracy on the one hand and broader society on the other.

The Basic Law favors a strong executive, but Mr. Tung's self-styled ''executive-led'' government has further diminished the role of the Legislative Council. The ability of the legislators to initiate laws has been almost eliminated.

The executive has brushed aside efforts to make it more accountable for its actions, despite erratic policy changes, sometimes never publicly admitted, to favor certain (usually property-developer) interests, and nontransparent awards of billion-dollar contracts to parties with inside connections. As in the Philippines, there have been howls of outrage in the media but nothing has changed. Mr. Tung and his colleagues do much as they please.

Frustration at the powerlessness of the council has caused several of its most active and independent-minded members to quit at the end of the recent session and decline to stand in elections in September. The next council looks set to be even less influential but might also be more troublesome.

Despite rising perceptions of incompetence, the weakness of oversight has made the administration more high-handed - quite a feat for a colonial-era civil service that has always felt well paid and secure.

The public perception, whether over housing or over pollution, is of a bureaucracy that lacks the will to take effective measures, especially when these offend certain business interests. It has recently been finding its senior members even higher paying jobs, for which they were not obviously qualified, at the interface of public and private sectors.

Still, there is nothing wrong with Hong Kong that better separation of powers and a dose of accountability would not cure.

[Not to be reproduced without the permission of the author.]