15th Anniversary: Dearth of Democracy

SCMP July 1 2012


The biggest disappointment of 15 years of the SAR has been the snail's pace of development of representative government. This is not to claim that democracy is by definition "a good thing" but simply that the paucity of it in Hong Kong has contributed much to the problems that even the government now acknowledges exist and which Leung Chun-ying promises to address.

The absence of adequate democratic progress has primarily been the fault of the government and the pro-Beijing parties which retreated from support for more rapid constitutional change. But some fault also lies with the pro-democracy parties themselves, whose divisions, pettiness and lack of inspiring leadership have not helped their cause.

One only has to look to our northeast Asian neighbours, Taiwan and South Korea, societies at similar levels of economic development, to realise the impact democracy has had in addressing issues such as the environment, welfare and housing - all without jeopardising public finances or currency stability. The people want cleaner air and have shown a willingness to pay an economic price for it. The people want proper pension support for the old, whose labours created economic success. The people want government to acknowledge its role in providing adequate housing and in avoiding huge swings in property prices.

Now look at Hong Kong and see how vested interests in the Legislative Council have combined with the natural immobility of government bureaucracies to entrench a system of high land prices, low housing production and mega profit margins for the big developers. Likewise, failure to make serious progress on air pollution, despite the enormous public health cost, has to be laid at the door of a variety of Legco interests so powerful as to drive the government to blatant lying about the actual level of pollution. Likewise, too, a fully elected Legco is unlikely to have stood for a situation in which the government acquired ever large surpluses and oligopolists ever larger profits, while poverty and income inequality increased to levels unheard of in other developed societies.

Now Leung promises to address all these issues, with more land supply, more pollution controls and a direct attack on poverty. Good. But it still remains to be seen whether, given the nature of Legco and the interests which work behind the scenes to influence the bureaucracy and Executive Council, Leung will be able to make as much progress as he would like and the public expects.

After all, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen had good intentions and regularly mentioned these issues as ones to address. For sure, he lacked the zeal to do much more than talk about them. But, once in office, will Leung really be able to do much better while the constitutional structure favours stasis and entrenched interests?

As for the pro-democracy parties, they deserve support for what they represent in principle rather than for their appearance in practice. In 1997, they had a real leader who inspired others and was admired, even by those who disagreed with him, for being a tenacious and articulate figure. Albert Ho Chun-yan, by contrast, may be worthy and honest, but does anyone see him as a leader?

The Civic Party does rather better at the leadership level, as opinion polls show, with Audrey Eu Yuet-mee being articulate and having a presence that gives confidence. But her party still looks too much like a lawyers' clique over-concerned with constitutional rather than livelihood issues to be a major force.

Both of these parties are easily distracted into what appears to the public to be negative issues. Two current examples are Leung's illegal structures and his proposed reorganisation of the bureaucracy. Leave the media to expose those structures. Instead of making personal attacks on Leung, these parties should take the opportunity of his inauguration to urge specific policies on him.

Likewise, though it was unwise of Leung to make an issue of restructuring even before taking office, obstruction made the pro-democracy group look entirely negative. Instead, why did they not offer co-operation to push this through in return for some specific policy promise for which they could claim credit with the public?

Yes, the business of an opposition is to oppose. But the advance of democracy requires that parties have reasonably well-developed ideas of what they would do in office, remote though that possibility might be.

As for the unholy trio of Albert Chan Wai-yip, "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung and Wong Yuk-man, they thrive on the general frustrations among the public about Legco as a rubber-stamp reflection of government-big business collusion. More genuinely radical ideas, more solidarity, less attention-seeking behaviour - and no truck with triads - by them would improve the image of democracy generally.

At bottom, a lack of constitutional advance has served to keep the quality of Legco generally lower than it needs to be. But "executive-led" government, so favoured by the Communist Party, is no substitute. It simply does not work in a society which is plural and rightly sensitive about its own rights and freedoms, and which still has a judiciary that is not subservient. The way to better governance is through genuinely representative government which requires legislators to be responsible and the bureaucracy to respond to public rather than narrow interest needs.




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