Follow my leader?

SCMP October 9, 2006

The chief executive is a tireless maker of speeches, seldom missing a chance to be heard and seen. But what do his words mean? I have been reading his September 29 address at Chinese University. It seems to be an attempt to set out his political philosophy and, in the process, reveals a lot about his self-image. He expressed similar thoughts on the Letter to Hong Kong programme on RTHK a month earlier.

Donald Tsang Yam-kuen describes himself as a politician. As chief executive, he cannot be anything else. But politics has in a sense been thrust upon him. His own political career was entirely within the confines of the politics of the bureaucracy. He is a political figure in the sense of colonial administrators like former chief secretary Sir Philip Haddon-Cave, rather than of those - like former governor Chris Patten or even Chinese party leaders - whose political experience came in a wider arena.

The public, he claimed, identifies with "individualism and heroism" in the political arena - while his "pragmatic" politics is "not so marketable". Showing all the condescension of the elite bureaucrat towards ordinary people, he declared: "Pragmatic politics may not appeal to the general public because it entails a long process of resolving issues in a gradual manner."

In other words, the public can stop demanding quick action on health or public transport, and wait for their betters to do what is best in their own good time.

He contrasted his pragmatism with the supposed ideological motivations of politicians who must appeal to the public. He rolled out a few big names to illustrate his politics of heroism - Churchill, Lincoln, Napoleon. He ignored the fact, though, that democratic politicians in the west and Asia are mostly rather ordinary figures, who get elected not by pursuing ideology but by purporting to offer superior but not very novel administrations. In short, this is guff to justify Mr Tsang's own lack of democratic credentials, or experience outside the bureaucracy.

Mr Tsang sees himself as the great administrator toiling away for the good of us all in the "monotonous" work of leadership. "A leader earns respect for his administrative skills," he said. "So being the chief executive is a rather unglamorous and down-to-Earth job when you really look at it closely." Nothing to do with power. Just selfless drudgery.

Leadership, he went on, does not just consist of formulating correct policies, but of the community forming a "consensus" on them. Consensus, he implied, is a question of getting the community to go along with whatever has been decided.

The pragmatic politician must put words into action - a Tsang sentiment with which few would disagree. But what happens when political pragmatism runs up against either basic principles or good administration? Judging by Mr Tsang's own performance, what suits his political convenience doesn't make for good governance.

His promises to address the critical pollution issue have not been matched by deeds that would upset commercial interests with political clout. They would also upset many of Mr Tsang's own class, who have prospered by doing favours for business. Instead of strong action to improve public health, the government compromises with vested interests or moves at the bureaucrat's preordained snail's pace.

Pragmatism - or self-interest - also sometimes requires that well-placed individuals, whether judges or media owners, are exempted from the normal standards of discipline and law applied to the rest of the population. Pragmatism means being a good Catholic - until there is a choice between following the Pope and displeasing Beijing.

Yes, Sir Donald is pragmatic. He is a good player of bureaucratic, and now small-circle Hong Kong, politics. He is a first-class self-promoter. But he is still a follower, not a leader.




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