International Herald Tribune
Can Hong Kong's chief succeed?
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

HONG KONG: Can Donald Tsang escape the bonds of the vested interests who have just elected him to his first full term as chief executive of Hong Kong? Does he even want to do so?

Those are the questions facing Hong Kong's 7 million people as Tsang basks in the applause of 649 supporters among the 795 electors allowed to vote for the post.

Although the election last Sunday had a preordained outcome, Tsang must be asking himself how to respond to those who challenge the presumptions of his self-styled "executive-led" government of bureaucrats and the business elite. That Tsang faced a serious and articulate challenger in the Civic Party legislator Alan Leong was itself a first for Hong Kong's fledgling democracy. Leong, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, was the first democracy advocate to obtain a place on the ballot here. That he was able to muster 123 votes was indicative of a groundswell for broader participation in government. That demand comes particularly from the professional middle class, but also from many local and foreign business people who must compete here without the insiders' clout of the local cartels.

For sure, democracy may not be high on the local list of priorities. Though most people say they want the vote, few expect it or will go very far out of their way to fight for it. Most probably prefer today's generally liberal if undemocratic situation to the kind of authoritarian democracy found in Singapore and elsewhere. But most want some progress towards more representative government.

The sense of public frustration is palpable. The government has failed to deal with increasingly dangerous air pollution, to act on promises to address rising income inequality, and to spend money on social problems.

Tsang's bureaucrats are widely regarded as being too close to the groups that dominate real estate, utilities and other areas of the economy where profits are tied to government decisions.

Following his election, Tsang admitted as much. He pledged that officials would "deepen their contact with society" and take a "bottom-up" approach to forming policy. Whether he can translate those words into action remains to be seen. Tsang himself is a lifetime bureaucrat with a "we-know-best" attitude.

The bureaucracy likes secrecy, particularly in its dealings with local tycoons, and is accustomed to using the civil service as a stepping stone to jobs with the local oligarchs. It equates debate with delay. It also controls large areas of the economy through quasi-governmental companies, like the stock exchange, the airport and railroads. These interests clearly don't desire more public scrutiny.

Yet that is what a well-educated public now expects. Tsang himself is in theory committed to pushing towards direct elections for all the legislature and the chief executive but only as far as "consensus" and Beijing permit. Of course, there is never consensus in politics and there are numerous divides in Hong Kong on the speed and shape of democratization. Beijing clearly wants to keep a lid on any democratic progress that might have an impact across the border, but China realizes that Tsang will have to deliver some modest advances towards universal suffrage.

Yet Beijing may now have seen that the best way to dampen Hong Kong's demands for greater democracy is to find ways of expanding participation in decision-making, which would mean loosening the grip of the bureaucracy and the cartels. Hitherto, Beijing has allied itself with business interests, including some of the sleaziest, partly because those interests would always sing its tune and partly out of a naïve belief that Hong Kong's prosperity depended on them.

But Beijing's domestic policies are now focusing more on social issues and the environment and less on growth for growth's sake. This may encourage Tsang to do the same in Hong Kong. It may in turn help the largest local pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance, which is so often required to endorse policies that appear contrary to the interests of its low-income supporters.

If nothing else, the pseudo election has raised political awareness and will require Tsang the super bureaucrat to learn that political give and take can be a humbling experience.