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 leader.

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 business alliance.

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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