Time to rock the boat


SCMP March 26

'In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.' That old proverb describes the 'coronation' yesterday of Leung Chun-ying as chief executive. But the final exposure of his one-time Beijing-favoured opponent as unfit to lead Hong Kong is no proof that Leung can succeed. It was unfortunate that eventually Beijing made its own support so clear, rather than leaving the 1,193 electors with at least the appearance of real choice. It was already apparent that Henry Tang Ying-yen was unelectable even by this small circle. The crude partisanship of the Liaison Office directly and other 'patriotic' mouthpieces was a disgraceful interference in the process. If Leung does not now disavow it, he will start with a very black mark to his name.

Leung's first task has thus been made more difficult - to convince the many doubters that he is not a hard-faced, illiberal executor of attitudes born in the bowels of the Communist Party. Those doubts exist among the many who preferred him to Tang if only because he was clearly intelligent and articulate, conducted himself with dignity during the campaign and had a policy platform that suggested a willingness to embrace new policies.

Beyond that, very little is really known about Leung, who has never been in government, never taken part in an election and whose views on constitutional development are, at best, opaque. Whether or not he ever made the remarks about using tear gas, attributed to him by Tang, this issue has been a reminder of the suspicions many harbour about his political beliefs, and his willingness to listen to the majority of people and not the majority of cadres. He should note that the many who preferred Tang did so not because of Tang's competence or personality, but because the former chief secretary was likely to do as little as possible, preferring inaction to upsetting anyone, tycoon or otherwise.

Constitutional issues are now more important than ever. The whole election process, the revelations of dubious conduct by people near the top of the power structure, have left the public more than ever convinced that much greater transparency and accountability are needed. This can only be achieved by enlargement of the franchise to reduce the influence of insiders and assorted vested interests, and defence of the role of the Legislative Council in monitoring the executive. Reminders of the 2003 mass demonstrations have been a reminder, too, of the issue of Article 23. Even the mildest of legislation is sure to prove more trouble than it is worth; Leung's attitude to it will be a litmus test.

He will also have to face the fact that the election has shown up the poverty of a political process that could offer only Tang and himself as alternatives, excluding the likes of Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee from the race and confining the pro-democracy candidate to be at best a spoiler and in practice an irrelevance, unable to bargain democratic support for whichever Beijing-approved candidate was closest to pan-democrat policies.

The public also expects an executive-led government that shows itself not only capable of making decisions in the public interest but of implementing them. The stasis in recent years on policies other than approving very costly and economically dubious infrastructure projects has been so obvious that the opportunities are many for Leung to show that he is a new broom and has the will to take tough decisions, ignore vested interests and refuse to be hidebound by past policies. The government of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has long been tied up in its own red tape, unwilling to think of change or reverse old decisions in the face of new facts.

The first task must be to get rid of some of the most obviously incompetent ministers such as John Tsang Chun-wah and Stephen Lam Sui-lung - whose elevation to chief secretary made even Tang seem tolerable - and Environment Secretary Edward Yau Tang-wah, who has been less than candid about pollution levels, in the process showing that he puts tycoon-favoured construction projects above public health.

Indeed, very early on, Leung would do well to order an urgent review of at least two of these - the incinerator project using outdated technology, and the need to bring the high-speed rail into the heart of Kowloon, surely a decision to use tens of billions of dollars of public money to further the interests of a small group of property owners.

It would indeed be nice to see the tycoons' dislike of Leung to be well-grounded. One can only hope that they have not bought enough Beijing influence that Leung will face huge pressure not to damage their oligopoly. They fear him because, as a surveyor with 35 years of experience in the property sector, he knows only too well how they have manipulated it in connivance with weak-minded or ill-informed officials. A fundamental, out-in-the-open, reappraisal of land and housing policy, with input from the public as well as experts, would be well received. He will also need to show that dinners for big-wigs do not preclude ending the land lawlessness which the Heung Yee Kuk has brought to the New Territories.

Fortunately, too, for now at least - and for the future as long as he can cut back on mega projects - Leung can throw money at badly needed one-off spending on pollution reduction as well as new emission control laws. Longer-term issues requiring genuine public debate include population policy and immigration, pension provision, and making the tax system fairer and less volatile. Leung needs to show that he is willing to take the public into his confidence, not confine policy conception to the bureaucrats or allow good governance to be thwarted by the interests of functional constituencies in Legco.

Indeed, he may learn that in the Hong Kong situation of an open society and free media, a wider franchise will make government easier, reducing the number of vested interests and giving the electorate a direct interest in good policies. As Taiwan and South Korea have shown, broadening the basis of political power improves governance.




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