Tuesday, December 1, 2015   

Stating the obvious

Michael DeGolyer

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

ce: The Standard

Country: HONG KONG, 106

BigEvent: 0

Keyword: NONE


It's fair to say 2002 was a year of government grudgingly admitting

things too obvious to too many to deny successfully too much longer.

But old habits are proving awfully hard to break as a new round of

denying the obvious takes place, especially surrounding Article 23.

We're probably in for more of the same in 2003.

Tung Chee-hwa framed 2002 by admitting the obvious with his

re-election launch speech in December 2001. He confessed leadership

faults that, by the end of his first term, had become far too obvious


for even staunch supporters to deny.

Zhu Rongji made his views clear with cutting remarks about the SAR's

indecision and dithering. Tung, Zhu and President Jiang Zemin said as

they endorsed his re-election, had "done a good job". Meanwhile,

Macau's leader had , in their words, "done a very good job". A

classic case of damning with faint praise.

Tung admitted repeatedly in his re-election campaign that ignoring

public opinion, Legco, political parties, most of the media, anyone

not considered a loyalist, and just plain old politics had not been a

good decision. The idea Hong Kong needed to be de-politicised, and

this was the best way to achieve it, had to be dropped.

Tung admitted trying to govern by unelected, virtually untouchable

bureaucrats who made their own policies, implemented their own

policies, evaluated the performance of their own policies and who also

recommended any need for revising their own policies did not work.

Who would admit to making a bad policy? Who would admit to poorly

implementing their own policy? Who would admit the need to change a

policy they had made?

Very few, was the obvious answer.

Only when a policy led to disaster or when the implementation of

policy had so glaringly failed that it became a public scandal did

change, grudging and incremental, take place. Even then, bureaucrats

specialised in investigations that found no one responsible. After

scandals like the mess of the airport opening, the short-piling fraud,

and the constant confusion over land policy, among many more major and

minor, did Tung admit the executive system itself had to change.

The principal officials' accountability system, better known as the

ministerial system, resulted, taking effect mid-year. As part of these

reforms, Tung appointed political party leaders to Exco.

The DAB, FTU and Liberal Party added, for the first time, a solid

connection between executive and legislative branches. Tung appointed

public opinion specialist Lau Siu-kai to head the Central Policy Unit.

Several new ministers had been critical of Tung's policies. He pledged

to judge their success and continue or curtail their appointments

based on public reaction to their performance. We will see.

The moves marked Tung's surrender to some obvious facts. Leadership of

a modern, complex community like Hong Kong requires politics, and

politics involves parties, public opinion, compromises with

adversaries and co-opting them to positions of influence in order to

form effective coalitions of support, and leaders who can be punished

or rewarded according to their evaluation by the public.

Tung still denies truths obvious to others. Hong Kong needs direct

elections of its policy-makers. Might that fact finally dawn on him in

2003 like others did in 2002?

On the economic side, admitting the obvious has been taking even

longer. Hong Kong has been in transition from a colonial oligopolistic

enclave and entrepot economy to a regional, globally competitive

financial, managerial, and entrepreneurial services hub since 1982,

when China began accelerating the opening-up process.

As a quasi-closed light manufacturing economy to the 1970s, Hong Kong

could get away with the mediaeval practice of shutting its city gates

from midnight to dawn.

But, as a transport, tourism, business, and shipping centre for

distributed manufacturing, increasingly more of which is co-ordinated

production at mainland hinterland factories with global schedules, the

practice of stopping all China land travel when the clock struck 12

proved more and more burdensome on locally based enterprises.

With the vastly increased development of Pearl River Delta facilities

and capabilities, Hong Kong with its double inspections, sky-high

charges, border-opening peculiarities and crowded roads became less

and less necessary.

As the mainland developed and joined the WTO, the Hong Kong advantage

began to weigh less against the disadvantage. Property prices, once

set with complete disregard to any mainland factors, now faced growing

competition from just across the border from a city that did not even

exist in 1982 when negotiations over Hong Kong's return to China began

and the one country, two systems idea took initial shape.

In an increasingly competitive environment, eliminating

inefficiencies, especially glaring ones like proscribing land travel

between midnight and sunrise, became necessary.

Also of increasing urgency and necessity was vastly improved physical

access to the world's most dynamic manufacturing centre just up and

across the river and over the border a world-beating manufacturing

centre that Hong Kong literally owns. But, nearly six years after

reunification, Hong Kong still has one rail into Shenzhen and two

roads. Stunningly, Hong Kong bureaucrats insisted until weeks ago that

a bridge to Macau and Zhuhai could wait for 20 more years.

Finally, unable to deny the obvious and the urgent any longer, Tung

came out in support of the bridge to the west and opening the border

24 hours for freight and human traffic.

But old habits die hard. He still denies the correlation of more

democratic governance with better, more efficient governance.

Government still denies what the public wants, and for the reassurance

of most here and abroad needs, a white bill specifying Article 23

legislation. It is still denying Article 23 laws could affect not just

freedom but also our economy in fundamental ways, as the bankers'

representative David Li cautioned.

As 2003 dawns, denial still reigns at the highest levels. But 2002

showed that slowly, agonisingly slowly, far too slowly, the SAR

government is realising the world has changed, and that the plan for

one country, two systems put in place a generation ago, in the midst

of the Cold War, that saw Hong Kong's advantage as being physically

buffered if not isolated from communist China, has to change.

The challenge government faces this year is reinterpreting the old

slogan in a way that protects fundamentals such as rule of law and

freedom while promoting the physical integration with a rising global

powerhouse necessary for our prosperity as a continental, regional and

globally competitive centre. Getting Article 23 right, urgently

eliminating cross-border transport barriers, and starting discussion

on further, desperately needed governance reforms will make all the

difference in 2003. It is obvious.

Michael DeGolyer is an associate professor in the government and

international studies department at Hong Kong Baptist University

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