Next time, let's have a real leader
by Philip Bowring
SCMP December 28
Constitutional change is in the air. That is at least one positive
prospect for Hong Kong as it enters the new year. So, too, is discussion
about what sort of person should be the next chief executive. The prospect
of change before 2007 is apparent from the revived profiles of some
aspirants, not least those more concerned with impressing the kingmakers
in Beijing than the subjects.
Before the handover, I expressed the view that it would have been better
for Hong Kong had Beijing sent a tough provincial governor or party
secretary than appoint an ineffective local stooge.
Hong Kong needed someone who would fight for the city as surely as the
mayors of Shanghai for the past decade or more have fought for its interests.
It needed someone with enough clout in Beijing to make his own decisions,
not someone forever seeking Beijing's advice and instructions.
If the people of Hong Kong were not going to have an effective say
in a choice of leader, it would also be better to have someone who did
not come with the baggage of local business interests and family relationships.
Unfortunately, such a choice was ruled out by the Basic Law's residence
requirement. Hong Kong ended up with someone who had no obvious administrative
talent, much business baggage, and who appears to have been chosen more
for his Shanghainese than Cantonese connections. Let us pray this mistake
is not repeated.
What lessons should Beijing learn from Mr Tung's evident failings?
First, it should question the assumption that the chief executive must
be a businessman - even one with a track record of achievement rather
than inheritance. Why is it that whenever business names get mentioned
as potential leaders of an economy that thrives on small business entrepreneurship
and rapid change, the names mentioned are the beneficiaries of inheritance
or marriage - Tung himself, Peter Woo Kwong-ching, Henry Tang Ying-yen,
James Tien Pei-chun, various members of the Li (Bank of East Asia) family
- not the people who made the likes of Johnson Electric into a global
I am not suggesting that Hong Kong should follow the Cultural Revolution
and rule out individuals for family reasons. But they should at least
have - like Chief Justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang or Victor Fung Kwok-king
- significant achievements of their own. Or maybe Hong Kong could produce
a leader such as Franklin Roosevelt, who was born to great wealth but
rose above the narrow interests of his own class.
But does a business city need a businessman leader, anyway? Mr Tung
and Beijing are both admirers of Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore. Are they
aware that Mr Lee, a lawyer, has always been wary of the power of private
big business and the need to keep it subservient to the state? Singapore
is run by a party and bureaucratic elite.
In any event, the skills needed to make a successful business are not
the same as those of a political leader. Globally, military types, lawyers,
even diplomats, have better track records.
That brings us to the representation of business in Legco and the suggestion
by some members of the business elite, such as Mr Woo, that one man
one vote "amounts to abolition of the business sector's rights
to participate in politics".
I would have more sympathy for those who plead for a strong business
presence through the functional constituency system if some of the existing
business members were more alert to the interests of small business.
Too often they seem to prefer to be rubber stamps for a government-big
Who suffers from the property and power cartels, the textile quota
giveaway, the power of the taxi giants? Is it not the small businessman,
be he (or she) in software, mini-buses or the restaurant trades? Failure
to adopt competition laws, and failure to limit links between the bureaucracy
and big business are contrary to the interests of the majority of businesses.
Others suggest that voting rights should have some connection to the
payment of tax. The assumption is that only the middle class and the
rich pay taxes. In fact, even excluding the racist tax on domestic helpers,
it could well be argued that Hong Kong's tax system is exceedingly regressive.
How much tax do the leading businessmen pay as a proportion of their
total household income? Dividends, capital gains and offshore income
are exempt, so direct tax falls only on whatever salary or fee income
they draw, or income they derive directly from property. They pay high
rates but everyone - including public housing tenants - in Hong Kong
pays rates roughly proportional to the value of their home. Sure, tax
and benefits are very unevenly distributed in Hong Kong, and the direct
tax base does need to be broadened. But do not let tax reform be guided
by the inheritors of vast wealth or the beneficiaries of government-supported
cartels that inflate profits and dividends to the disadvantage of the
vast majority from all classes.
Please, please Beijing, spare us from these people who give capitalism
and patriotism a bad name.
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