The uncertainties surrounding the unexpected departure of Chief
Executive Tung Chee-hwa have pointed up the deficiencies in Hong Kong's
political system and the erosion of the autonomy it is supposed to enjoy. Many
people are happy to see the exit of a man who, despite hard work and dedication
to the task, provided neither leadership nor competent administration. But
without more fundamental changes in governance, a change at the top is likely to
have limited benefits.
Any successor will enjoy a honeymoon, and
be able to ride a rising economy. But as Tung himself found, a fund of initial
goodwill can quickly dissipate when circumstances turn adverse, if the chief
executive is seen to be more concerned with the demands of Beijing or the
interests of local business oligopolies than looking after Hong Kong's broader
Beijing has allowed itself to be drawn
into Hong Kong affairs more deeply than local people want and more than it
originally intended. Tung's lack of decision-making prowess caused him to look
to Beijing for guidance. His unpopularity, as evidenced by mass demonstrations,
then made Beijing see Hong Kong as a "problem" it needed to address.
The chaos surrounding his departure
scarcely suggests any well-laid plans. Indeed, it has shown a remarkable level
of bungling by Beijing's Hong Kong handlers. But the timing should allow his
successor to be chosen by the current electoral body, whose term expires in
This would short-circuit the plans,
currently under discussion, to broaden the franchise for the choice of chief
executive, originally set for 2007. Although the demands of pro-democracy groups
for direct election of the chief executive had been ruled out, there were
grounds for believing that a much more representative body would emerge than the
current appointed group of businessmen and Beijing trusties.
The present selection mechanism suits
Beijing but hobbles any chief executive, however competent, with a perceived
lack of legitimacy. That may not matter when times are good but provides a weak
foundation for making hard decisions in difficult times. It had long been
expected that for all his deficiencies, Tung would serve out his full term,
partly to save Beijing's face and partly because of its doubts about who would
be the most appropriate successor.
The system has also failed to throw up
candidates outside a small circle of bureaucrats, business families and Beijing
placemen. Leading the field now is the chief secretary for administration,
Donald Tsang, who will be acting chief executive pending the selection process.
He is well enough liked but as a lifelong civil servant has a reputation as
follower more than leader.
As the holder of a British knighthood,
and a Catholic, he has had to make extra efforts to convince Beijing of his
patriotism. He is also closely associated with many of the policy failures of
the Tung administration, and appears to many to have become a prisoner of the
same property developer interests close to Tung and to reflect the authoritarian
attitudes of a civil service trained in the colonial era.
However, his most prominent rivals have
their own weaknesses. Financial Secretary Henry Tang has an engaging personality
and an inherited fortune but thus far limited experience in administration.
Education Secretary Arthur Lee is from a prominent banking family with an earned
reputation in academia, but an independent and arrogant streak may be too much
for Beijing, which values conformity above competence. There are others, but
they fall into the categories of either Beijing acolyte or billionaire inheritor
and defender of vested business interests.
A combination of experience and
popularity is hard to achieve given the narrow franchise for choosing the chief
executive. That is made worse by the gap that exists between a partly popularly
elected Legislature and an appointed executive that has been doing its best to
ignore the Legislature rather than engage it in the process of government.
Indeed, the judiciary is now seen by many as the main check on abuse of
executive power by ruling against government efforts to ignore or bend the law.
Whoever does get the top job, Beijing
must not only allow him to be an outspoken promoter of Hong Kong interests and
differences. It should have learned by now that loyalty to Beijing is
counterproductive if it is seen as contrary to local interests. It needs to
recognize too that a Hong Kong economy that must compete internationally is
being hobbled at home by collusion between government and business to maximize
profits by minimizing competition. The growth of collusion and sleaze under Tung
has been a major cause of his unpopularity. It can best be remedied by
accountability to a wider public.
The climate in Beijing at present is
unlikely to be receptive to pleas for more openness. But the leadership should
fear a permanently disgruntled Hong Kong more than one that takes its own
decisions and accepts blame when things go wrong.
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