ce: The Standard
Country: HONG KONG, 106
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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