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
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
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