Before the handover, the concern was that Hong Kong would lose its autonomy. Now the
concern is that Hong Kong's leadership cannot handle the autonomy that it has. Outdated
colonial structures are largely to blame.
Contrary to the expectation of many, overt Chinese interference in Hong Kong's
affairs since the handover has been conspicuously absent. Officials all over the country
have been instructed to keep their hands off Hong Kong. And Hong Kong has actually taken
over tasks, such as the handling of the Vietnamese migrants, that were formerly the
preserve of the sovereign power.
Given these favourable conditions, one might have expected Hong Kong's leaders to shine
as they became, in Tung's phrase, masters of their own house. Yet a series of
misadventures, from Sir SY Chung's birthday party, to the handling of the bird flu, to the
assurances that the Asian financial crisis would be "over by Christmas" have
dulled the image of the leadership in the public's mind.
Why has there been this shortfall when on the face of it the conditions for leadership
have been so propitious? No doubt the personalities are partly to blame. Mr Tung cannot be
faulted for diligence. But he has concentrated too much on the execution and not enough on
leading his team and communicating his leadership to the people.
Yet structural problems are the main culprit. Mr Tung has inherited a structurally
difficult situation, which unfortunately his policy choices have made worse.
- Legitimacy. There is the basic problem of the legitimacy of the Special Administrative
Region (SAR) government. Anachronistic though the British colonial regime was, it had a
certain legitimacy in the eyes of Hong Kong people. It had delivered decades of rising
living standards, had been reaffirmed through crises such as the Japanese occupation and
the 1967 riots, and in its final years, if belatedly, it had granted a measure of
democracy and real participation to the people. In contrast, the SAR began with the
replacement of a legislature elected by the people by an appointed body, with the
abolition of key laws protecting human rights, and with the selection of a Chief Executive
by a "small circle" that did not represent Hong Kong people as a whole.
- Bureaucracy. One of Hong Kong's traditional strengths has been a relatively efficient
civil service. Under the colonial model, the civil service was not merely a bureaucracy,
but, at its upper echelons constituted the political executive - the Policy Secretaries
deciding, rather than merely implementing, policy. Mr Tung, accordingly, retained existing
team of Policy Secretaries almost intact.
Why, then, does the Civil Service now seem so fallible? Firstly, localisation, whatever
its merits, has had the effect of stripping the Civil Service of much of its talent and
experience. Secondly, the traditional Administrative Officer (AO) structure, under which
high-flying generalists rotate through diverse policy areas, is becoming increasingly
inadequate to handle the complexities of each area. There is a need to recruit more
expertise from the private sector, and reform management structures and processes.
Thirdly, the very continuity in the Civil Service through the transition has undermined
its credibility, as officials who had previously appeared to have authority over policy
were now, as a result of policy reversals, clearly no more than implementers of policies
decided by somebody else. Fourthly, there is the evident split between the Civil Service
and the Chief Executive's office.
The effect of these developments has been a tendency for the Civil Service to diminish
in the public's eyes from an "Administration", with an authority and right to
govern, to a "bureaucracy", fit only to implement policy decisions.
- Executive. The reduction in the political authority of the Civil Service would not
matter so much, and would in fact bring the Hong Kong service more into line with its
counterparts in developed civil societies overseas, if there were an clearly established
political level to the executive. However, this has not yet happened. Mr Tung's Executive
Council still has the largely behind-the-scenes advisory role that it had in the colonial
period. Initial attempts to grow the Executive Councillors into a ministerial role
provoked public outcry. The Civil Service also resisted encroachments on what it perceived
as its perogative. Nor have the Executive Councillors, who were chosen from relatively
narrow business and pro-China circles, proved very effective at channelling public opinion
into the policy-making process.
- Legislature. If the quality of advice from the Executive Councillors was lacking, the
former colonial administration in its latter days could rely upon vigorous input from the
Legislative Council. But here again the SAR faced a structural constraint. The Provisional
Legislative Council comprises appointees who were selected more for their political
compliance than their steadfastness in reflecting public opinion. The quality of debate
and the scrutiny of Government initiatives has declined, the more so because being
unelected the council is supposed to exercise restraint.
In the event, the Provisional Legislative Council has performed better than might have
been expected. In the debate over the financial crisis, Legislator Chim Pui Chung went so
far as to demand the dismissal of three senior officials for incompetence, and the censure
of Mr Tung for appointing them. Nonetheless, the limited representativeness of the
Provisional Councillors results in narrow views being channelled into the scrutiny
- Advisory Boards. The former colonial administration appointed large numbers of advisory
boards and committees to supplement the formal governmental process. The official function
of these boards was to channel public opinion and to provide expert advice; the unofficial
function was to capture elite groups and subsume them within the colonial structure. This
strategy was broadly successful while the elites interested in political influence
remained relatively small. However, when in the 1980s and 1990s the masses started to seek
political participation, the role of the advisory boards became increasingly superceded,
as elected members - from functional constituencies and then finally from geographical
constituencies - replaced appointed members in the Legislative Council.
Needing to channel opinion from the community and give them a sense of engagement in
the policy-making process, the SAR Chief Executive has sought to revive the colonial
system of advisory boards. In his policy address, Mr Tung created at least eight new
advisory committees, and more are created with each turn of events. However, this
instrument of cooption has had its day. Advisory committees have little appeal to the
masses, who see them as elitist, while among the elite the sheer number of committees
strains the talent available to fill them, and are not always taken seriously.
- Sovereign backing. The colonial administration had, as a last resort, the authority of
the sovereign power, Britain, to fall back upon. Although Britain was hardly loved, and
was regarded by many as a cold, wet - and relative to Hong Kong in more recent years
somewhat backward country - it had an undeniable international standing and a depth of
experience and expertise that could be drawn upon in a crisis. Hong Kong drew many of its
governmental systems and practices, and much of its law, directly from Britain, and they
worked reasonably well.
The SAR Chief Executive enjoys the strong support of the Government of China. Yet this
backing, though well-intentioned, is in some senses more a hindrance to Mr Tung than a
help. Too enthusiastic expressions of support from the China side arouse Hong Kong
people's suspicion of interference. And perhaps more importantly, China's actual ability
to help Hong Kong resolve the complex dilemnas of its advanced society is limited. British
practices, while often by no means ideal for Hong Kong, were at least those of an advanced
market economy and civil society. The systems were broadly compatible. This is not the
case with the new sovereign. The "two systems" of the formula is a reality: in
most areas there is a vast gulf between the Chinese and the Hong Kong system. The few
attempts to adopt Chinese practices - for example, voting by clapping of hands in the
selection of NPC delegates - have tended to alienate Hong Kong people.
Hong Kong thus faces a leadership crisis. The crisis is due to the basic colonial
structure of the SAR Government, now shorn of the participative features that it developed
in the final years of British rule. The crisis is not yet acute, and there are safety
valves, such as the upcoming Legislative Council elections in May, and the envigorated
council that they are likely to return. Yet it would be wise for Mr Tung to begin now to
restructure his Government into a post-colonial mode.
Ultimately there must be general elections for the entire Legislative Council and for
the Chief Executive himself. And it is doubtful that Hong Kong can wait another decade for
this to happen. Yet even before there are general elections, the structure can be
reformed. The key to such reforms would be to establish clearly the political level of the
executive, the level at which authority and responsibility for policy decisions resides.
This political level should be clearly identified as the present Executive Council, who
should become proper ministers or "secretaries of state", perhaps somewhat like
the US system of presidential appointments. Even before the "president" - ie the
Chief Executive - is elected through universal suffrage, it would be possible for his
appointees to function in their full capacity. There would then be a focal point for the
channelling of public opinion, and in the event of error, a place for the buck to stop.
The civil service could then refocus on professional implementation of policy.
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