An insult to the people of Hong Kong

SCMP January 12 2004

January 7 has become a day of doom for Hong Kong and its chief executive. On this day 32 years ago, Tung Chee-hwa was on board the then greatest passenger ship in the world, the former Queen Elizabeth, renamed Seawise University, when it mysteriously caught fire in several places simultaneously, capsized and sank in the harbour.
Likewise, Mr Tung's listing reputation as a leader finally capsized on January 7 this year.

No one has blamed Mr Tung for the arson or the failure to extinguish the fires, which destroyed the great vessel owned by Island Navigation, the company created by his father, Tung Chao-yung, and of which the younger Tung was then an executive. The arsonists were never identified and an inquiry placed no blame for the disaster, which made headlines around the world, on any individual.

But people will long blame Mr Tung for his abject failure to respond, other than with meaningless platitudes, to the most eventful year in Hong Kong politics since the handover, if not since the Cultural Revolution. One could, of course, completely ignore the Policy Address on the grounds of lack of substance. But given Hong Kong's circumstance, the address was not a nothing. It was an insult to the people of Hong Kong in general and to the Legislative Council in particular.

Having ploughed through its 36 mind-numbing pages (the government website version), what strikes the reader is not just the lack of policy developments or ideas, but the attitude of mind which it displays.

The ethnocentric Mr Tung seems to harbour illusions not of leading "Asia's world city", but of being a player in China's great nationalist revival. Read his last sentence and ask yourself, what does he really mean by saying that by making a success of "one country, two systems" we will "accomplish the mission that history has entrusted to us in the course of the revival of our great nation"? That is rhetoric worthy of Saddam Hussein. But it is not alone. The purpose of Hong Kong becoming "an irreplaceable hub of quality services" is "dedicated to the promotion of the mainland's economic modernisation".

He has the temerity to tell a population with significant non-Chinese (mostly Asian) minorities, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese citizens of foreign countries - all member of groups without whose presence Hong Kong would be indistinguishable from Shenzhen - that they must be "proud of our Chinese heritage and willing to assume our national responsibilities".

The pity of it is not just that Mr Tung is misguided. It is that the central government seems still not to recognise that much of the pressure for democracy stems not from ideology or economic interests, but from frustration with the incompetence of Mr Tung and the cronyism which has thrived under his version of leadership. Instead of acting as a bridge between Hong Kong people and Beijing, he has driven a wedge between them, creating tensions which never previously existed.

His attempt to woo the middle class by emphasising its importance underlined his own lack of touch. The corresponding lack of reference to those earning the average $10,000 a month, let alone the more disadvantaged, was hardly likely to commend itself to the majority of the population. As for the middle class, it has been made abundantly clear that it wants real elections, not being fobbed off with appointments to yet more rubber-stamp advisory bodies. Those bodies were the colonial era pretence at consultation and their proposed extension underlines the instincts of an administration to appoint friends, family and trusties, and rewards them with bauhinias and sometimes more tangible goodies.

On the substantive issues on which the address should have outlined policies, rather than new ways of procrastinating, enough has been said elsewhere about the delays and pre-emptions built into the consultation process on political reform.

But there has been an equally cowardly approach to the budget problem. The government feels so insecure that it evidently intends to make only minor tax and spending changes so as not to upset the public. The public knows perfectly well that the deficit problem must be faced squarely and the medicine taken. It is looking to the government to produce a credible plan. Hong Kong is realistic enough to take its medicine. The problem is that Mr Tung will not swallow his.

Indeed, a planned increase in capital-works spending was justified not on grounds of the utility or the rate of return of the projects, but because "I am aware that professionals are particularly concerned about public works projects in Hong Kong". For "professionals", read civil engineers and contractors. But what about those, professionals included, who will eventually foot the bill for wasteful projects?

The one apparently positive decision in the speech - a go-ahead for Container Terminal 10 - is hedged by doubts about its location. Could it be that the existing port operators will contrive to thwart this decision, or ensure that they maintain their oligopolistic grip?

There were innumerable references in the speech to the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement. Mr Tung waved it around like Mao Zedong's Little Red Book. Cepa is useful, but can hardly be the key to the future of an economy which has always thrived on international (not national) free trade - although not on the high-cost local oligopolies so assiduously protected by the Tung administration. If Cepa is so important, why are we not also thinking of similar pacts with Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Singapore, for example? These countries are signing up bilateral deals in all directions. They may mostly be political gestures, but what is "Asia's world city" doing to ensure its place as the leading entrepot of Asia? Patriotism has replaced the pragmatism which should be the hallmark of a businesslike city; it has become the last refuge of a discredited administration.




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