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Give Hong Kong's boss a message

Philip Bowring

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 25, 2005
HONG KONG Hong Kong's new chief executive, Donald Tsang, is on a trip to sell the territory and himself in New York, Washington and London. He will be speaking of Hong Kong's renewed economic dynamism, initiatives to streamline government, and its attractions as a law-based society which is also part of a booming China. He may hint too at his own political skills and popularity, so far, compared with his bumbling if likable predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa.
 
Let's hope, however, that the conversations are not one-way affairs. The visits come in the wake of Tsang's first annual policy address and the announcement of constitutional changes. His hosts have a right to quiz him on various Hong Kong issues that he cannot hide behind the veil of "internal affairs." And for the good of Hong Kong, he should listen to them.
 
In the first place, Hong Kong is the subject of an international treaty between China and Britain that enshrines the territory's separate status and commitments to the rule of law and to progress toward representative government - much of which is further elaborated in China's Basic Law or mini-constitution for Hong Kong. Tsang's hosts in Washington and London, who like to preach about spreading democracy, should note the minimal progress toward directly elected government in Tsang's recently unveiled constitutional proposals.
 
They may give Tsang the benefit of the doubt on the electoral system on the understanding that he is going as far as Beijing, increasingly nervous of the word democracy, will allow. But they might give him little such benefit were they apprised of the tone and content of his policy address. It included, in the name of efficient, "executive-led" government, the centralization of power within the bureaucracy and emphasis on the accountability of ministers to the chief executive, not the legislature.
 
Tsang's address repeatedly called for "harmony," but as defined by government, not by popular will, and proposed the creation of a "cadre" of political leaders to promote government policies. In short, he betrayed his preference for Plato's republic over Jefferson's, with rule by an elite of bureaucratic and entrenched business interests.
 
His hosts should also have something to say on trade issues, particularly as Hong Kong is shortly to host the key World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in December. They could remind him that for all its claims to being an open, competitive economy, Hong Kong lacks any competition laws and its domestic sectors are riddled with oligopolies and high-cost monopolies, privately owned but with close ties to Tsang's "business friendly" administration. They may also have some concerns that Hong Kong's Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement with the mainland could be at odds with its traditional commitment to offering a level playing field for all trade.
 
Some of his hosts will not need reminding that Tsang, a lifetime bureaucrat, has been involved in several huge property-related deals between the government and private interests which, for whatever reason, have bypassed normal competitive tendering procedures. He was also the architect of the government's 1998 massive intervention in the stock market to shore up asset prices.
 
There is also the issue of environmental pollution. Hong Kong is too small and deindustrialized to matter in the global scheme of things. But the continuing failure of this rich enclave to set an example to the mainland suggests that it is of diminishing value as an exemplar. The health of its own citizens continues to be sacrificed to the profits of coal-burning power producers.
 
In turn, Hong Kong's disregard for the environment is increasingly a factor for international companies choosing a location for their regional operations. Even Shanghai, not to mention Singapore, Sydney and Seoul, have better claims to concern for the environment.
 
Tsang's hosts should also remind him of Hong Kong's petty new irritants, such as preventing the spouses of foreign business executives and professional people from working.
 
It may be necessary at times for Tsang to show his loyalty to a still suspicious Beijing by emphasizing "one country" over "two systems," and the need for patriotism and closer ties to the mainland. But the rest of the world should tell him bluntly that Hong Kong prospers by being as different as possible from the mainland.
 
That means the rule of law, not rule by executive decree; an absolute commitment to open trade and competition; and freedom of political organization. It should also mean an agenda that acknowledges Hong Kong's ethnic mix rather than focuses on "Chinese blood," an identification in Tsang's policy speech that was ill received by Hong Kong's 250,000 non-Chinese, without whom Hong Kong would be just another city on China's coast.
 
 
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